Dark Liberation

When interest in political theology began to emerge on the Christian Left and Center Left in the 1960s, those engaging the discipline were at pains to distinguish not just their specific theological positions but their entire set of questions and concerns from those which motivated the “Old Political Theology” of the NAZI jurist Carl Schmitt.  This concern is reflected in the outstanding status questionis  prepared by Francis Schussler Fiorenza in 1977 (Fiorenza 1977/2012), which makes it clear that the Schmittian problematic is simply one among many possible approaches, whether to a theology of the political or to what he and his associates call a “consciously political theology” as opposed to the unconsciously political theology which is created when theologians do not understand the social basis and political valence of their claims.

Specifically, Fiorenza identifies the following political-theological paradigms:

  • The tripartite distinction between mythical, philosophical, and civic or political theology associated with Varro (cited in Augustine 427/1972), 
  • Augustine’s doctrine of the Two Cities (augustine 427/1972),
  • An Enlightenment doctrine centered around natural theology and civic religion (Locke 1690/1967, Rousseau 1762/1962) ,
  • The political theology of the Catholic Restoration, within which he situates Schmitt, but which also includes the much earlier and somewhat different work of de Maistre and de Bonald (Bonald 1796, Maistre 1775-1821/1965,
  • The German political theology of the 1960s 1970s (Solle 1974) and
  • Latin American liberation theology (Solle 1974).

To these, even restricting ourselves to the limited historical and civilizational frame which Fiorenza analyzes, I would add, at a minimum:

  • Thomistic political theology, both in its original form, and in its Baroque and social Catholic/Christian Democratic incarnations (Goerner 1965, Gilson 1968), and
  • An entire spectrum of Protestant political theologies including, at least, early Lutheran and Reformed political theologies, the competing liberal and Evangelical political theologies of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Neo-Orthodoxy, and an entire sub-spectrum of fundamentalist political theological, from Dispensationalism through Reconstruction and Dominion (Niebuhr 1951).

If we were to bring the typology up to date, we would need to add:

  • The Communio theology which developed in reaction to Latin American liberation theology (Ratzinger 1984, 1986) and
  • Radical Orthodoxy, which is distinctive in proposing the Church rather than the State as the architectonic political paradigm, (Milbank 1991). 

All of this, furthermore, presupposes that we addressing only Christian political theologies. It does not consider the vast range of Islamic political theologies which have informed on the global political scene in recent years, or the various Jewish political theologies which have shaped Christian polities and which led, through the triumph of Zionism to the establishment of a Jewish State which has in turn become a significant point of political-theological interest to both Christianity and Islam. Nor does it consider the Indian, Chinese, Southeast and Northeast Asian, Indigenous American and African domains which make up far more than half of humanity.

And yet contemporary discourse around political theology in the broader academy has been dominated by precisely the Schmittian problematic, as indicated in the work of Agamben, Baidou, and Zizek, and to a lesser extent Foucault and Derrida, among others, in a way which makes Fiorenza’s Eurocentric typology seem quite cosmopolitan in character. We will have the opportunity to return, in later chapters, to analysis of these various political theologies and the social interests they represent. It is the aim of this section to explain clearly just what Schmitt did that has been so been so captivating for the academy, as well as its links to the broader hermeneutic ontological and structuralist-poststructuralist lineages of which his followers form a part.  We will also ask why it has been so captivating and show just how profoundly dangerous this problematic, in both its “Left” as well as its Right forms, has become. 

To anyone who has followed the careful process by which the Right in the United States has cultivated a “bull-pen” of conservative and especially conservative Catholic intellectuals to help it map its road back to power since its defeat in 1932 and the failure of the “Business Plot” in 1933 to overthrow Roosevelt and install a fascist regime (Reimann 2017), figures such as Carl Schmitt and Martin Heidegger represent a familiar type. In the wake of Germany’s defeat in the First World War and the democratic revolution of 1918, in which significant elements pressed for the transfer of power to workers councils on the Soviet model, and which even for the mainstream of the Social Democratic Party which opposed the Soviet model was part of a strategy for a peaceful transition to socialism, the ruling classes began plotting their restoration. Then as now the conservative Catholic small and petty bourgeoisie provided the intellectual shock troops for that restoration.  Little did they know that they would also shape the direction of the Left a century later. 

Writing in the 1920s, during the Weimar Republic, Schmitt advanced a pair of theses which have come to dominate political-theological discourse. First, he argued that all modern political concepts are simply secularizations of theological concepts (Schmitt 1922/2005).  Second, he argued, against historic natural law theories and more recent concepts of popular sovereignty, that “the sovereign is he who decides the exception (Schmitt 1921/2014).” 

The first of these claims is, despite the enthusiasm it has excited among secular intellectuals unaware of their own religious heritage, actually quite unremarkable. Nearly all the great thinkers of the Enlightenment saw themselves as working to realize in the secular arena the principles and values of the Christian (or the Jewish) tradition. Thus Locke grounds his doctrine of rights on the concept of property and his concept of property on the divine act of creation —and humanity’s limited participation therein. Even as he undercut the historic arguments for the existence of God, Kant insisted that the moral principles of Christianity, at least as he understood them, were, in fact, obligatory on the basis of reason alone. And Hegel argues that

The divine spirit must interpenetrate the entire secular life: whereby wisdom is concrete within it, and carries the terms of its own justification. But that concrete indwelling is only … ethical organization. Hegel, G.W.F. Encyclopedia of the Philosophical Sciences (Hegel, G.W.F. 1830/1971 3: 552).

Indeed, Marx himself —Schmitt’s ultimate adversary— says essentially the same thing in his Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right: Introduction (Marx 1843/2009).  Philosophy grasps the rational kernel in religion, and politics —in the form of the proletariat— realizes philosophy.

The criticism of religion is the prerequisite of all criticism. 

The head of this emancipation is philosophy, its heart the proletariat. Philosophy cannot realize itself without the transcendence [Aufhebung] of the proletariat, and the proletariat cannot transcend itself without the realization [Verwirklichung] of philosophy. (Marx 1843/2009)

It is only the fantastic and untenable character of the claims made by both of the principal secular projects of recent centuries —technocratic or humanistic— to effectively deify humanity, whether through scientific, technological and economic progress or by creating a political subject which makes humanity the master of its own destiny, which has led those championing those projects to keep the theological, or rather theotic, character of their aims largely hidden —another issue to which we will return later. 

Schmitt’s second claim is more serious.  In its original context it lays out the juridical groundwork for Hitler’s suspension of the Weimar Constitution in 1933 in the Enabling Act or Reichstag Fire Act and thus for the whole NAZI regime. Here Schmitt is arguing that modern constitutionalism is a secularization not so much of Christian as of Roman ideas, though the specific points he cites are, for example, reaffirmed in Catholic theology (Aquainas. Summa Theologiae. I-II:95:4). Specifically, in the Roman tradition, laws were enacted senatus popolusque, “by the people and the elders together.” Potestas or power belonged ultimately to the people, without whose consent no law could be effective, even if in practice this popular consent was given as the result of significant economic and rhetorical manipulation.  But the validity of the law rested on the auctoritas or authority of the Senate, which determined whether or not it was in accord with higher principles which, in the Roman context, were rather ill defined, but which in a Catholic context would later become identified with natural law and in a liberal context with natural rights or established constitutional principles. In this sense the juridical role of the Senate was more like that of our Supreme Court than that of most contemporary “upper houses” of parliament. 

Roman law had a provision, though, which allowed the Senate to temporarily suspend the rule of law in the case of a public emergency, and to appoint one or more “dictators” who were free to act as they saw fit in order to protect the Roman state. In the profoundly aristocratic (and thus anti-monarchic) political culture of Republican Rome, it was taken for granted that no one would abuse this power and risk the loss of respect on honor from his peers which, assuming command over sufficient land and labor to guarantee the ability to devote one’s life to philosophically informed civic engagement was understood as the chief social good.  But of course it was precisely this provision which through a complex series of events allowed the “dictatorship” to become permanent in the form of continuing military imperium which was, officially at least, created in order to protect the institutions of the Republic, and which eventually assimilated not just the popular potestas but also the senatorial auctoritas to itself. 

It is Schmitt’s explicit endorsement of this final move which constitutes his embrace of the NAZI Fuhrerprinzip, the embodiment in the Fuhrer of the senatorial auctoritas which Roman dictators never had under the Republic and which they gained only gradually and de facto under the empire. 

This is, we should note, part and parcel of the same broader project as Heidegger’s hermeneutic ontology, especially in his later thought after the “turn.”  Heidegger’s early critique of metaphysics, set forth in Problems of Phenomenology (Heidegger 1927) and Being and Time (1928) focuses on the failure of thinkers, beginning with Plato, to grasp the distinction between Being and beings, and instead attempts to theorize Being as the beingness of beings –i.e. it thinks Being in entitative terms.  Where the pre-Socratics, according to Heidegger, were able to think the self-manifestation of Being, something he associates with the term physis or nature, Plato and Aristotle increasingly use the language of morphe (form) and energeia (actuality). Form, and especially the Good or the “form of forms” is, for Plato, what really is and that in terms of which this world of appearance must be explained and judged.  Aristotle goes even further down this road, arguing that it is form which actualizes matter, bringing things into being. Rather than simply allowing Being to manifest itself, to present itself as a question, it is reduced to something other than Being, something which can be comprehended –and once comprehended, used to ground our own process of making, our own process of bringing into being.  Indeed, as Heidegger points out, the very notion of morphe derives from the language of the craftsman: it is the look or appearance given to something by its producer.  Energeia, similarly, is rendered in German as Wirklicheit, from the root for work.  Metaphysics thus grounds technology, and the larger technological mode of relating to the world.

Later (Heidegger 1941) Heidegger modified both his historical analysis and his philosophical position.  Increasingly identifying ancient Greek and German romantic thought, he claimed to hear in Plato and Aristotle echoes of the earlier Greek aletheia or unconcealment of Being and located the crystallization of metaphysics in the “translation” of Greek thought into Latin, the language of road builders and empire makers, a crystallization which is completed in the Middle Ages when Being is identified with the supreme maker, the Christian Creator God.  This process culminates, of course, in Thomas, who is the supreme philosopher of the “ontotheologic,” the universal causal-explanatory system in which Being is simply an instrument for explaining and ultimately manipulating entities.  Modern metaphysical theories, such as those of Descartes and Hegel –or for that matter Marx– differ only in giving human rather than divine subjectivity or labor pride of place.  Nietzsche’s claim that the world is just the “will to power” is simply the culmination of this long metaphysical tradition, and offers just one more formulation of the first principle. 

Being, for the later Heidegger, manifests itself in a people only through the voice of the few who help it to discover its “god,” a sort of mythos under which Being is revealed.

… the essence of the people is its “voice.”  This voice does not, however, speak in a so-called immediate flood of the common, natural, undistorted and uneducated “person.”  The voice speaks seldom and only in the few, if it can be brought to sound …  (Heidegger >1934/1989: 319)

A Volk is only a Volk if it receives its history through the discovery of its god, through the god, which through history compels it in a direction and so places it back in being.  Only then does it avoid the danger of turning only on its own axis … (Heidegger >1934/1989: 398-399).

The result of Heidegger’s move is, we should note, in no sense a global abandonment of metaphysics, but rather a change in its aim. Where historic metaphysics terminates in the concept of Being as Such or its transcendental equivalents —the Good, the True, the Beautiful, and the One— in order to explain the universe and order human action, Heidegger argues instead for interpreting Being in its concrete historical unconcealments. Now this might seem entirely harmless or even attractive. After all, when we encounter another human being, we like to imagine that we do not begin by trying to explain them or use them to explain anything else, but rather attempt to understand them intersubjectively —something which requires interpretation. Beginning with explanation seems like an objectification and even an instrumentalization. But this is not really how we proceed.  We first make a strategic and tactical estimate of who a person is —of their interests and networks and capacities— and what they intend, something which entails causal analysis and explanation. Thus, if the someone knocks on our door in the middle of the night (or at mid-day, for that matter) we do not simply welcome them in and begin a deep conversation, aiming at intersubjective understanding. We first need to know who they are and why they are there.  After all, some people who knock on doors in the middle of the night arrest those they find and send them to death camps … Indeed, even if the individual approaching us is a colleague at the office rather than a stranger in the middle of the night, we want to make an estimate of their intentions before we decide how much to share.  

But there is more.  Let us say that the individual in question is planning to round up your people, gas them, then burn them in ovens.  If you are going to resist you need not only to understand this person intersubjectively; you need to know why they are doing what they are doing so you can develop an effective strategy for resistance.  And you need to ground a principle of value in terms of which the genocide can be authoritatively condemned.  To put it in terms of Roman Law, both potestas and auctoritas depend on metaphysics as science or explanation:  on demonstrating the ordering of the universe and everything in it to Being and to the Good.  Rejecting metaphysics as science or explanation leaves us with no alternative but to accept the auctoritas of Being’s latest unconcealment, even if that unconcealment takes the form of Hitler, and seek guidance for our actions only through an interpretation of that unconcealment. Heidegger’s “gods” or “voices” of the people are the metaphysical equivalent of Schmitt’s Sovereign, which decides on the exception and which possess in themselves (and not as interpreters of Being) the auctoritas to define the principles which will govern the social order. 

We will, in a later chapter, see that a similar problem afflicts “modern science” —or at least its architectonic discipline, mathematical physics— which has been largely left behind explanation in favor of formal description —and the physical interpretation of mathematical formalisms. 


 It should be apparent by now just why Schmitt was so pivotal in the NAZI road to power. Like Heidegger he was able to interpret the rise of Hitler in terms which were attractive to a large conservative Catholic and Romantic constituency which had no doubt envisioned a “restoration” that looked very different from the one they got. 

But why has Schmitt so captivated the Left, especially in the decades since the collapse of the Soviet Union?

In order to answer this question we need to know that Schmitt’s 1921 essay On Dictatorship — and to a significant extent his entire body of work— was, in fact a response to an earlier essay —The Critique of Violence— by Walter Benjamin, which addressed a critical gap in revolutionary political theory.  The problem is this. Historically socialism understands itself as building on and completing the liberal and democratic projects, not as simply negating them.  And central to these projects is the establishment of rule of law. This includes a legal framework which protects the rationally autonomous individual and which specifies a format of representation by which the “people” can elect the government of the day and make and change laws. But the laws which protect the rationally autonomous individual also protect the property owner, and indeed generally define rights in proprietorial terms. And both the formats of representation which specify democracy and the objective conditions under which political struggle takes place reflect a balance of power in which the exploiting classes —the aristocracy and especially the bourgeoisie— retain a significant advantage.  How, under these circumstances, do we carry out an authentically revolutionary transformation which expropriates the bourgeoisie and brings the proletariat —the vast majority of “the people”— to power, and which sets in motion the decommodification of labor power necessary to realize the ideal of self-determination which motivated not just the socialist but also the liberal and democratic projects to begin with?

Liberal theorists generally resolve this question by appeal to some sort of natural rights theory —to the laws of nature and nature’s God—- or else to some other strategy (such as Kant’s categorical imperative) for grounding moral principles prior to any social contract. But of course the principles to which they appeal are precisely those which ground the private property rights which in turn make Capital possible. So a breach with positive law is permissible —but only when Capital is threatened. Democratic theorists such as Rousseau thus went further and grounded rights themselves in a social contract which is itself the product of democratic —or even revolutionary— processes. This puts on the table, as it were, the possibility that the political order is itself ultimately the product of violence even if it aims to contain such violence in the future.  And this was precisely the opportunity which was seized by the Catholic “traditionalists” de Maistre and de Bonald who argue that it is indeed violence which is the foundation of any possible social order, and that the one legitimate form of such violence is the divine violence of the sacrifice on the cross. We can already see that this road leads us to Schmitt.

We have argued elsewhere (and will argue even more forcefully in this work) that the only consistent way to ground revolutionary transformations, especially when they require action outside of positive law, is on the basis of a robust if radically historicized natural law theory (Mansueto 2014), which is what we believe Marx actually outlined in the Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right: Introduction and the Communist Manifesto, but which he left radically underdeveloped. And this in turn requires a metaphysics of Esse. Now most social democrats and the communist right (the tradition of that includes Bukharin and Bogdanov, Gramsci and Silone) have taken such an approach in practice, gaging cautiously what degree of change is appropriate based on a careful reading of the social conditions. Thus the debates on the Left regarding whether or not the “objective conditions” existed for a socialist transition, or for some other more partial step in that direction. But others have followed the example of Rousseau and the French Revolution and grounded the legitimacy of the revolution and the revolutionary regime which emerges from it in revolutionary violence as such, a violence which Rousseau’s sociologically more acute critics on the traditionalist Right correctly identified as literally or symbolically divine in character, in that it does not simply represent but actually defines justice. And this is precisely what Benjamin does in The Critique of Violence. Specifically, Benjamin identifies what he calls a divine violence, which aims at the constitution of justice outside of any possible positive law.  It is this and this alone which can be the mediating term between one legal regime and another.  There is thus a deeply rooted connection between the revolutionary left and the traditionalist right, one that goes back behind Benjamin and Schmitt to Rousseau and the traditionalists. While Benjamin —and later Derrida— argue for a “violence” which transcends the Law in the name of Justice, Schmitt argues for a violence which suspends the Law in the name of Justice. Neither can tell us what Justice is and neither believes it can be grounded. 

Now neither Benjamin nor Derrida actually engaged in or directly advocated revolutionary violence, and while Benjamin might have had he connected with the Resistance rather than committing suicide, it should be clear that the poststructuralism is by no means actually a revolutionary ideology. Derrida’s advocacy of “divine violence” means something else. In order to understand what it means, we must identify the precise social basis and political valence of poststructuralism generally and of the poststructuralist fascination with Schmittian political theology. And this, in turn, requires that we analyze the class composition the historic socialist and communist movements to which poststructuralism is largely a response. 

While there can be little doubt that the industrial proletariat did, in fact, provide much of the mass base of both the social democratic and communist wings of the movement, and while it has always been peasant movements which have brought communist parties to power, the leadership of the socialist and communist movements has historically been drawn from what Marx and Engels called “the bourgeois ideologists.”

Finally, in times when the class struggle nears the decisive hour, the progress of dissolution going on within the ruling class, in fact within the whole range of old society, assumes such a violent, glaring character, that a small section of the ruling class cuts itself adrift, and joins the revolutionary class, the class that holds the future in its hands. Just as, therefore, at an earlier period, a section of the nobility went over to the bourgeoisie, so now a portion of the bourgeoisie goes over to the proletariat, and in particular, a portion of the bourgeois ideologists, who have raised themselves to the level of comprehending theoretically the historical movement as a whole (Marx and Engels 1848/2000).

This is the same group that Marx earlier identified as Philosophy, which he called the “head of the revolution (Marx 1843/2009)”.  It is also Hegel’s “universal class” of liberally educated civil servants.  It is what we are calling the “humanistic intelligentsia,” (those trained in and attempting to live from —or at least devote their lives to the practice of the liberal arts and in particular the humanities and the humanistic social sciences). And while in the nineteenth century—and to a lesser extent even today—  elements of the humanistic intelligentsia were and are derived from the bourgeoisie as such, this group (which is a social category and not a class),  is  predominantly petty bourgeois both in their origins and in their class position and, as capitalism develops, is subjected to increasing proletarianization. By this we mean that, on the one hand, unlike the proletariat as such members of the humanistic intelligentsia enjoy significant creative control over their work, but like the proletariat they see this control gradually slipping away, by way of attacks on academic freedom and faculty governance in universities, the decline journalism as a liberal profession, etc. 

Since this is the group which actually does social theory and philosophy, we do well to take into account its specific interests as we analyze its theoretical products and assess them as political strategies.  And by the early twentieth century the humanistic intelligentsia had three well defined political options on the table. The first was what we might call  “professionalism,” i.e. a privileged, semi-autonomous role based on the exercise of one’s specific discipline within the context of bourgeois society, on the condition that it remain “value neutral,” i.e. that it provide advice regarding the means to ends which are determined by others: nominally “the people,” acting through democratic structures, but in practice the bourgeoisie. This is the option represented by Weber in Science as a Vocation (Weber 1919/1968) and is what today we often call a technocratic orientation. This option generally involves an alliance with the liberal and advanced, technocratic bourgeoisie and, in practice, with the more fully proletarianized elements in the population by way of social liberal and social democratic parties.  The second option was communism —a bid for all-sided global leadership based on an alliance with the proletariat and other exploited classes, aimed at ending for everyone  the commodification of labor which was the principal form of capitalist oppression experienced by the humanistic intelligentsia. In the context of this option, the humanistic intelligentsia trades some of its autonomy (actually a lot)  for a global leadership role in the context of a Leninist vanguard or Gramscian counter-hegemonic party —again in alliance with the proletariat as such, the peasantry if there is one, and often in popular fronts with the liberal bourgeoisie. The third option was Romantic Reaction —an alliance first with absolutist monarchic and aristocratic and later with imperialist and colonizing bourgeois elements who, the intellectuals in question imagined, promised a return to a less instrumentalizing, preindustrial, precapitalist past. This is, of course, the option of the traditionalists de Maistre and de Bonald, of Nietzsche, and ultimately of Heidegger and Schmitt who, however, introduce a new element to the strategy. (Lukacs 1953/1980). 

As King and Szelenyi (King and Szeleny 2004) have suggested, an integral part of professionalism as a class strategy is artificially maintaining the scarcity of professionals.  This is something physicians, for example, have done very well, attorneys reasonably well, and academics very poorly.  We are, after all, in the business of training our own competition. Pierre Bourdieu makes a compelling case (Bourdieu 1988/1991) that Heidegger’s famous obscurantism, something which has since been mimicked by scholars throughout the humanities, was designed to confer on the philosopher an oracular mana which set him apart from ordinary humanity and, in effect, made doing philosophy inaccessible to the vast majority of people. 

By the 1920s and 1930s the contradictions of historic socialism were becoming apparent. State ownership of the means of production turned out to be a means not to the decommodification of labor power but to the full proletarianization of the entire society. And Stalin began systematically liquidating precisely those elements with the humanistic intelligentsia who actually insisted on exercising the critical rationality which had drawn them to the socialist project in the first place. But this was also the period, of course, during which fascism was ascendant, as a cluster of political formations around the world drew on the alienation and authoritarianism generated by the commodification of labor power to legitimate the destruction of not just the socialist but also the liberal and democratic projects, and to militarize their societies in pursuit of the colonial empires which Capital needed in order to survive. Intellectuals like Heidegger seemed to imagine that they could leverage their philosophical obscurantism into a privileged position within, or even hegemony over, the fascist regime.

The Frankfurt School, with which Benjamin became associated played a critical role in this situation. On the one hand, the Frankfurt School represented “petty bourgeois socialism” par excellence. Drawn from the bourgeoisie and petty bourgeoisie, many of its members had studied Weber and studied with Heidegger and they were profoundly sensitive to the fact that the critique of capitalist instrumentalization could easily be turned on actually existing socialism. And their organic connection to the proletariat was very limited at best. Nevertheless, despite some ideological problems —such as Benjamin’s fascination with divine violence and Adorno’s radical pessimism—they maintained their commitment to the socialist project. And Fromm’s (Fromm 1941) analysis of the links between the alienation engendered by the commodification of labor power and the authoritarian personality structure on which fascism depended are critical to understanding not only historic fascism but what has followed. 

After the defeat of fascism, the liberal bourgeoisie —increasingly, it seems likely, under pressure from occult networks on the far right— broke the popular front and imposed on the humanistic intelligentsia a return to professional “value neutrality” which increasingly included an implicit or explicit “anticommunism” clause. Many of those who submitted —especially those who came from places of privilege themselves— found positions of honor and responsibility in the social liberal order; those who did not were marginalized. Meanwhile, however, the rapid expansion of higher education created a new “mass intelligentsia,” which could not really be accommodated within even the also expanding ranks of the professional middle class, at least not at the levels of that class which provided the professional autonomy which the student generation of the 1960s saw being exercised by “the best and the brightest,”  who were actually a small, privileged stratum. This was the social basis for the student movement of the 1960s (which actually extended well into the 1970s, and which had a significant “afterlife” in the 1980s).  And it is not surprising that the Frankfurt School, with its focus on resistance to the alienating impact of the commodification of labor power and its distance from the rest of the working classes, was an inspiration to this movement. 

But just as the mass student movement was edging towards socialism, it became apparent that historic socialism was irredeemable. Krushchev’s reforms beginning 1956 represented a break with the worst of Stalinist repression, but if anything seemed to move the Soviet bloc further away from the communist ideal of the decommodification of labor power. The Maoist alternative catalyzed the excitement of many in the 1960s and 1970s, among other things precisely because it targeted the persistence of commodity production under socialism, and led to the formation of an entire Maoist “new communist movement.” But it soon became apparent that Maoism was, if anything, vastly more repressive, especially for the intelligentsia than Stalinism. Stalin murdered those he saw as a political threat. The Cultural Revolution targeted the entire intelligentsia, regardless of its political orientation or practical activity, even at the cost of nearly destroying Chinese Civilization. And while some of the later Third World national liberation movements,  especially in Latin America, engaged a range of new constituencies, embracing, for example, a significant movement of radicalized Catholic clergy and laity, and largely avoided the creation of a monolithic single party state, they too turned out to be mostly about creating a national state bourgeoisie rather than about liberating people from the need to sell their labor power in order to survive. 

In the Soviet bloc the process was a bit different. The humanistic intelligentsia welcomed periods of reform —1956, for example, and in a more limited way 1968, but was inevitably pushed to the side as reforms were either crushed or the opening they created reserved for technocratic managers rather than humanistic advocates of decommodification. By the mid-1980s, when Gorbochov made it clear that real reform was coming, the humanistic intelligentsia in the Soviet bloc had largely given up the dream of “socialism with a human face” and facilitated the collapse of the system and a capitalist restoration. 

This is the point at which the political valence of the poststructuralist appropriation of Schmitt  (and Heidegger) becomes clear.  Beginning in the 1960s a group of French intellectuals pioneered a new strategy for the humanistic intelligentsia: what we might call “critical professionalism.”  Critical professionalism allows the humanistic intelligentsia to criticize the increasing proletarianization of their own stratum, while refusing to engage Capital, and thus abandoning the rest of the proletariat and working classes. We see this illustrated most clearly in the work of Michel Foucault. Foucault (Foucault 2007) argues that while premodern states aimed only a control over territory, modern states exercise a detailed control over bodies which he calls biopolitical. Thus ancient empires merely taxed their citizens; modern states (or rather the modern corporations which modern states protect) aim at total control of the production process.  This thesis, which certainly points to something real but, we will argue, also misunderstands it, became the basis for the strange politics of an entire generation of the humanistic intelligentsia which aimed at resisting proletarianization without resisting Capital, or indeed without even mentioning its existence. Indeed, it is incontestable that historic socialism also represents a practice of biopolitics, so poststructuralism comes off seeming even handed and, if it not as enthusiastic about capitalism as the Right would like, this made it relatively unobjectionable.  Heidegger’s obscurantism was  maintained as a way of promoting the artificial scarcity of professional deconstructionism, and we have the humanistic academy which took shape from the 1980s onward  —perhaps earlier in Europe.

Agamben’s work is located in this context, largely as an extension and correction of Foucault, who was his teacher. Specifically, Agamben argues that modernity represents not a modification of the concept  or aims of of Sovereignty, but rather a shift from a discourse around Sovereignty and politics to a discourse around economy. This shift, he argues, is located genealogically in the emergence of a Trinitarian theology which distinguishes between God’s Being, identified variously with the Trinity as a whole or with the Father, and his activity or the divine economy, identified with the relations between the Persons of the Trinity or with the Son.  This shift points to the emergence of an immanent order which depends not on the establishment or application of principles or of law but on the concrete, empirical resolution of particular problems.    

The strategy worked —for Capital.  An entire generation of the humanistic intelligentsia (or more) was cut off from the struggle against Capital and focused on “deconstructive” activity which it understood as liberating but which was actually aimed at disarming the Left.  But the strategy did not work for the humanistic intelligentsia itself.  Graduate programs continued to churn out doctorates and universities cut tenure track lines and shifted responsibility for most of their teaching mission to adjunct faculty and a lower caste of largely unprotected “teaching faculty.”  And the handful who got tenure assisted their employers by denying it to anyone who questioned the poststructuralist orthodoxy.  Seeking allies, poststructuralist academics offered their theories to the women’s movement and to movements against imperialism and racism, which had the effect, in turn, of cutting these movements off from any possible alliance with the proletariat.  It also promoted an “allergy to power” as itself instrumentalizing and oppressive, which condemned those who took this route to political impotence.

The result is an absurd situation in which very comfortable humanistic academics earning large salaries and still enjoying very significant autonomy (on condition that they not deploy it against Capital) talk about revolutionary violence and say other things which sound incredibly revolutionary —but intend nothing. Are they  merely soothing their consciences by occasionally nipping at the hand that feeds them? Or are they up to something more sinister? The method we advocate is focused more on analyzing concrete impact than it is on ascribing intentions.  Here two points are in order.  First, political theology in the Schmittian mode has largely displaced the liberation theologies of the last century which, whatever their failings (which we will discuss in a later chapter), advocated a politics focused on the self-liberation of the proletariat and the peasantry.  Where liberation theology got people reading Marx, Agamben, Baidou, and Zizek have them reading a fascist, just as Derrida, Foucault, and Deleuze did before them. Second, while there has been a resurgence of interest in “socialism” during the past decade, very significant elements of this new maximalist left have flirted or worse with the alt-right and especially with the New Axis of which Vladimir Putin is the public center.  For “genealogists” such as Nietzsche, Foucault, and Agamben this would, in fact, be enough convict. But at present we will leave the matter in the form of a question.  

Over the course of the following chapters we will offer an alternative account of what a consciously political theology should look like —one which situates humanity’s struggle for self-determination in the broader context of our desire for Being and which demonstrates the ways in which Christianity has hegemonized this desire in the interest of Capital, while engaging the political theologies of other spiritual and civilizational traditions. And this will allow us to settle accounts with poststructuralism and Dark Liberation by way of a more rigorous argument. But before we proceed, we need to consider the question of method.


Agamben, Giorgio. 1995/1998. Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life. Stanford University Press

_________________. 2000/2005, The Time that Remains: A Commentary on the Letter to the Romans. Stanford University Press

_________________.  2003/2005. State of Exception. Stanford University Press

_________________.     2007/2011. The Kingdom and the Glory: For a Theological Genealogy of Economy and Government. Stanford University Press

_________________.  2010/2012. The Church and the Kingdom.  Stanford University Press

_________________.  2011/2013. The Highest Poverty. Stanford University Press

_________________. 2012/2012 Opus Dei: An Archaeology of Duty.  Stanford University Press 

_________________.  2013/2015. Pilate and Jesus. Stanford University Press

_________________. 2013/2017.  The Mystery of Evil: Benedict XVI and the End of Days. Stanford University Press

Aquinas, Thomas. 1272/1952. Summa Theologiae, Chicago, Encyclopaedia Britannica.

Augustine. 426/1972. The City of God, trans. Henry Bettenson.  New York: Penguin

Baidou, Alain. 1998/ 2005. Being and Event, transl. by Oliver Feltham; (New York: Continuum

_____________. 2002/2003. Saint Paul: The Foundation of Universalism. Stanford University Press

_____________. 2006/2009. Logics of Worlds: Being and Event, Volume 2, New York: Continuum. 

Barbour, Ian. 2000. When Science Meets Religion. SanFrancisco: Harper

Benjamin, Walter. 1921/1978. “Critique of Violence,” in Reflections: Essays, Aphorisms, Autobiographical Writings, ed. Peter Demetz, tr. Edmund Jephcott, New York: Schocken Books

Bonald, Louis de. 1796: Théorie du Pouvoir Politique et Religieux.

Bourdieu, Pierre. 1998/1991. The Political Ontology of Martin Heidegger. Stanford: Stanford University Press. 

Fiorenza, Francis Schussler. 1977/2012 . Political Theology as Foundational Theology. Proceedings of the Catholic Theological Society of America32. Retrieved from https://ejournals.bc.edu/index.php/ctsa/article/view/2881 

Fromm, Erich. 1941. Escape from Freedom, New York: Holt Reinhart Winston.

Foucault, Michel. 2007. The Politics of Truth. Los Angeles, CA: Semiotext(e)

Gilson, Etienne. 1968 Dante and Philosophy. Glouster, MA: Peter Smith 

Goerner, E.A. 1965 Peter and Caesar. New York: Herder and Herder

Gogol, Nikolai. 1836/2011. The Nose. Accessed athttp://www.gutenberg.org/files/36238/36238-h/36238-h.htm#Page_67 

Guttierez, Gustavo. 1973  The Theology of Liberation. Maryknoll: Orbis

Hegel, G.W.F. 1830/1971 Encyclopaedia of the Philosophical Sciences, trans. William Wallace. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press

Heidegger, Martin. 1928/1968. Being and Time, New York: Harper and Row.

———. >1934/1989: Beitrage sur Philosophie (“Contributions to Philosophy”). Frankfurt-Main: Klosterman.

———. >1941/1979-1987 Nietzsche. San Francisco: Harper and Row.

Jaspers, Karl. 1953. The Origin and Goal of History. New Haven: Yale University Press

King, Lawrence and Szelenyi, Ivan. 2004.  New Class Theories. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. 

Land, Nick. 2013.  Dark Enlightenment. Accessed at https://www.thedarkenlightenment.com/the-dark-enlightenment-by-nick-land/ 

_____________.  2017. “AQuick and Dirty Introduction to Accellerationism,” in Jacobite May 2017. Accessed at https://jacobitemag.com/2017/05/25/a-quick-and-dirty-introduction-to-accelerationism/ 

Lerner, Eric. 1991.the Big Bang never Happened. New York: Random House

Locke, John

1690/1967  Two Treatises on Government. London: Cambridge Univ. Press

Lukacs, Georgi. 1922/1971. History and Class Consciousness, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

———. 1953/1980. The Destruction of Reason. London: Merlin.

Maistre, Joseph de. 1775-18211965. Works. New York: Macmillan

Mansueto, Anthony. 2001. “Christianity, Antisemitism, and Empire,” in Religion and Dialectics, Lanham: University Press of America.

_____________.  2005. Spirituality and Dialectics. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books (with Mary Mansueto)

_____________. 2012 Knowing God: The Journey of the Dialectic.Eugene, OR: Pickwick

_____________. 2014. Knowing God: Doing Justice. Eugene, OR: Pickwick.

___________. 2016. The Ways of Wisdom. Eugene, OR: Pickwick

Marx, Karl. 1843/2009. Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’sPhilosophy of Right: Introduction.  https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1843/critique-hpr/intro.htm

 ______________.1845/2002. Theses on Feuerbach, 


______________. 1848/2004. The Communist Manifesto. Accessed at 


Milbank, John. 1991. Theology and Social Theory. London: Blackwell

Niebuhr, H. Richard. 1951. Christ and Culture. New York: Harper

Raschke, Carl. 2012. Postmodernism and the Revolution in Religious Theory. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press.

Ratzinger, Joseph Cardinal. 1984. “Instruction Regarding Certain Aspects of the Theology of Liberation,” United States Catholic Conference

______________. “Christian Freedom and Liberation,” United States Catholic Conference

Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. 1762/1962  Le contrat social. Paris: Freres

Reimann, Matt. 2017. These Wall Street millionaires literally plotted to overthrow the president.  Timeline, August 17, 2017.

Sartre, Jean Paul. 1943/1993. Being and Nothingness. New York: Washington Square Press. Schmitt, Carl. 1921/2014. Dictatorship. From the Origin of the Modern Concept of Sovereignty to Proletarian Class Struggle (1921), Cambridge: Polity Press

_____________. 1922/2005.   Political Theology. Four Chapters on the Concept of Sovereignty (1922), trans. by G. Schwab, Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 

Segundo, Juan Luis .1976  The Liberation of Theology. Maryknoll: Orbis

______________. 1985  Theology and the Church.  New York: Harper

Solle, Dorthee. 1974. Political Theology. Philadelphia: Fortress

Tipler, Frank. 1994. The Physics of Immortality, New York, Doubleday

Varro, Marcus Terentius. Antiquitates rerum humanarum et divinarum libri XLI (Antiquities of Human and Divine Things), lost but quoted extensively in Augustine. City of God.

Voskuilen, Thijs and Sheldom, Rose Mary. 2008 OperationMessiah: St. Paul, Roman Intelligence, and the Birth of Christianity. Valentine Mitchell

Weber, Max. 1918/2004. “Science as a Vocation,” and Politics as a Vocation,” in The Vocation Lectures, trans. by Rodney Livingstone, New York: Hackett. 

____________. 1920/1968. The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. New York: Scribners

____________. 1921/1968. Economy and Society. New York: Bedminster

Žižek, Slavoj. 1999. “The Politics of Truth, or, Alain Badiou as a Reader of St. Paul,” in The Ticklish Subject: The Absent Core of Political Ontology. New York: Verso

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Theology Has Escaped

Theology has, it appears, escaped. What was once a respectable, architectonic, but also tightly regulated discipline which exercised its office in an almost hidden manner, her charms accessible only to the most discerning, and her relationships mediated and her conversations chaperoned by her “handmaid,” Philosophy, is now galavanting around not just the academy but other institutions of civil society like Collegiate Assessor Kovalyov’s nose (Gogol 1836/2011) , impersonating State Counselors and every other manner of authority and consummating forbidden liaisons with other fields and disciplines.  

The most notorious such liaison is theology’s ménage a trois with Philosophy (now “liberated” from her role as handmaid) and Politics, under the form of what has come to be called “political theology.” Most contemporary accounts of the origins of political theology —at least in the sense the term  is used today—  trace it to Carl Schmitt’s assertion in his Politische Theologie (Schmitt 1922/2005) that “all significant concepts of the modern theory of the state are secularized theological concepts.”  Together with his claim that “the Sovereign is he who decides the exception (Schmitt 1921/2014),”  (i.e. determines when to suspend the rule of law) this thesis formed the basis of Schmitt’s legitimation of the Enabling Act of 1933 and thus of the whole NAZI regime. And yet Schmitt has a large following today is on the “Left,” for which his thesis has become a way of deconstructing the entire humanistic secular project of constituting a political subject which can make humanity the master of its own destiny of which it was the historic proponent, and the metaphysical foundations of which they have now determined to be the basis of its technocratic opposite: the regime of universal, instrumentalizing techno-political control which defines both capitalism and historic socialism alike. (Agamben 1995/1998, 2000/20005, 2003/2005, 2007/2011,  2010/2012, 2011/2013, 2012/2012, 2013/2015, 2013/2017; Baidou 1998/2005, Zizek 1999).. 

But these theological “genealogies” of the humanistic secular project are not theology’s only liaisons dangereux.  On the contrary, theology has taken upon itself the task of policing the boundary between “religion” and “science” which was once also under the jurisdiction of Philosophy —and the results have been catastrophic. While scholars of religion (Barbour 2000) have been busy elaborating a standardized typology of four different forms of engagement between religion and science (conflict, non-overlapping magisteria, dialogue, and integration)  physicists (Tipler 1994) have generated “theologies” which make explicit the technocratic secular claim to realize by means of scientific, technological, and economic progress the theosis which has always been humanity’s deepest desire. And if interventions such as Tipler’s Omega Point Theory remain marginal, they nonetheless constitute a wedge which has allowed the proliferation of a whole range of more “modest” transhumanist discourses —most notably those of the Dark Enlightenment (Land 2013, 2017). Meanwhile grave questions about the theoretical coherence and political integrity of mathematical physics remain unanswered.  Quantum theory, it turns out, has roots as steeped in emerging NAZISM as the (Heideggerian) hermeneutic ontology which dominates the humanistic academy (Lerner 1991) and is, in fact, part of the same “hermeneutic turn” which, far from being a product of the past two centuries, in fact dates back to the Augustinian Reaction of the 1270sand to the Reformation. This too is political theology. 

But theology has not only escaped.  It has simultaneously gone under cover, hiding as something other than itself where one might expect to find it, even as it loudly proclaiming its presence where it was thought to have been banished. Thus religious studies … that melange of discourses about religion which has been very clear from the beginning that it is not theology. And yet the genealogy of this field shows unambiguous roots in liberal Protestantism and thus interests which are at once theological —establishing a cosmopolitanism in which pluralism becomes a mechanism of specifically Protestant hegemony— and political, as indicated by recent critiques which locate its origins in what amounts to a practice of sociocultural intelligence in service to imperialism  (Raschke 2012).

Our liberal and democratic sentiments incline us to celebrate escapes and impersonations.  But theology, we must remember, is the Queen of the Sciences, and history should warn us that unregulated royalty is dangerous. And as it turns out, without the supervision of her handmaid (Philosophy), theology has behaved badly indeed, hatching every manner of reactionary and authoritarian plot under the guise of liberatory discourse and prophetic denunciation —and, we will argue, collaborating in disarming humanity in the hour of her greatest need. More specifically, I will suggest, theology and especially political theology and something called religious theory  have become the latest vectors by which the hermeneutic-ontological (Heideggerian) virus has spread, rewriting our culture using subtly fascist code, and in the process disarming the Left and disarming humanity. Specifically, the hermeneutic ontological virus undercuts the foundations the communist project, which have always been in a metaphysics of Esse and in humanity’s ordering to the power of Being as such (Mansueto 2005, 2012, 2016) —while pinning the blame for Capital’s regime of technopolitical instrumentalization on the very “ontotheology” which grounds any possible resistance. Thus the failure of Schmitt’s disciples to criticize the univocal metaphysics which has its roots in Christianity and which grounds the technocratic and capitalist project of transcending finitude by means of scientific, technological and economic progress. 

It should come as no surprise that in the midst of this there should be a revival of interest in Paul of Tarsus.  Any reasonable reading of Paul cannot help but locate in his letters the seeds of two millennia of Christian antisemitism —and by way of that antisemitism the transformation of a messianic sect within Judaism into a legitimating force for Empire (Mansueto 2002).  And there is a good case to be made that he functioned as a Roman “counterinsurgency”operative (Voskuilen and Sheldon 2008). And yet scholars as diverse as Agamben. (200/2005),Baidou (2002/2003), and  Zizek (Zizek 1999) have found in him the rotes of revolutionary universalism. 

We are not, to be sure, arguing that theology should not address itself to the broader concerns of humanity in the present period, to the “joys and the hopes, the griefs and the anxieties of the men (sic) of this age, especially those who are poor or in any way afflicted (Gaudium et Spes 1).”  On the contrary, we will argue for what Francis Schussler Fiorenza (Fiorenza 1977/2012) has called a consciously political theology, because theology is always political, even when it is not aware of the social basis and political valence of its interventions.  And we will argue for a theologically conscious politics —and a theologically conscious theory to guide it.  We need a  theology which sets politics in its broader civilizational and spiritual context.  But this theology needs a firm foundation in social theory (and indeed the sciences in general) and in philosophy, which can ensure that it serves the interests of humanity as a whole, and does not fall prey to complex, multigenerational ideological operations from the Right. 

What might this look like?  Part of the difficulty in answering this question derives from the ambiguous position of theology in the secular academy. 

If the study of religion sits uncomfortably in the academy it is for good reason. The academy itself, even in its secular, technocratic, and corporate manifestations, is fundamentally a religious institution. The history of the academy is nothing other than the history of humanity’s changing –some would say evolving– engagement with the sacred. What began as myth and ritual, a system of shared meanings and practices which ordered the earliest human societies towards their ends, becomes in the axial age (Jaspers 1953) the mystery cult and poetry, philosophy and theology and, with the dawn of the third saeculum the criticism of religion, which in turn finds its development in  hermeneutic and social scientific engagements with the sacred. When we study religion –almost regardless of how we proceed– we reveal, in a way which we otherwise keep carefully concealed, our hidden agenda, which has always, since the time of the first academy (Plato’s) been not merely to interpret the world, but to change it (Marx 1845/2002). And in its “final” (liberal, democratic, and communist) humanistic form, the criticism of religion seeks not merely to understand the divine, but to realize the humanity’s deepest, in fact constituent, desire: the desire to be God (Sartre 1943). 

Because it is constitutive of the academy, and thus of all disciplines, the study of religion cannot itself be a discipline. It is, rather, a field of study which, in the secular academy, operates covertly as one interdisciplinary field among many, but which remains, even as it is marginalized, substantively universal in its scope. The fragmented approach to this study is a product not of the immaturity of the field but rather an artifact of an ongoing political and ideological (in fact theological) struggle between competing ways of being human and their associated civilizational projects –a struggle in which the competing parties, at least to the extent that they are strategically and tactically self-conscious, all recognize that their battle can never be anything other than occult. This is because the dominant technocratic secular project, which aims at transcending finitude by means of scientific, technological, and economic progress, and the subaltern humanistic secular project which aims at transcending contingency by creating a political subject which makes humanity the master of its own destiny, exercise hegemony by concealing their (theological) character and mediating their principles and values through various “reinterpretations” of axial traditions which alone are admitted to be religious. Breaking this cover would require both projects to attempt a direct apologetic which, in the light of the events of the long twentieth century, which radically undercut the theotic claims of both “science” and “politics,” would no longer be credible. At the same time, the older “axial” traditions, widespread dissatisfaction with the “modern” and the “secular” notwithstanding, lack the capacity to present themselves as credible global alternatives to the secular projects –or, when they do (as in the case of Christian and at least some other fundamentalisms) retain the underlying, defining metaphysics of the saeculum: the univocity of Being.

It is in this context that we must understand theology’s most recent maneuvers. And it is in this context that we must frame our own task in this Summa: Against Capital. Specifically, we need to map out just how and why the legal theories of a NAZI jurist came to inspire and even dominate so much of the “Left” academy and turned the “humanistic” intelligentsia into its opposite. —and how this fits into the larger hermeneutic-ontological project.  And we must trace out the even more complex and involved process by which the irrationalist interpretations of a scientific theory (quantum mechanics) the relative value of which we do not deny became hegemonic for the sciences as a whole. 

It is to these tasks that we turn in our next installment. 


Agamben, Giorgio. 1995/1998. Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life. Stanford University Press

_________________. 2000/2005, The Time that Remains: A Commentary on the Letter to the Romans. Stanford University Press

_________________.  2003/2005. State of Exception. Stanford University Press

_________________.     2007/2011. The Kingdom and the Glory: For a Theological Genealogy of Economy and Government. Stanford University Press

_________________.  2010/2012. The Church and the Kingdom.  Stanford University Press

_________________.  2011/2013. The Highest Poverty. Stanford University Press

_________________. 2012/2012 Opus Dei: An Archaeology of Duty.  Stanford University Press 

_________________.  2013/2015. Pilate and Jesus. Stanford University Press

_________________. 2013/2017.  The Mystery of Evil: Benedict XVI and the End of Days. Stanford University Press

Baidou, Alain. 1998/ 2005. Being and Event, transl. by Oliver Feltham; (New York: Continuum

_____________. 2002/2003. Saint Paul: The Foundation of Universalism. Stanford University Press

_____________. 2006/2009. Logics of Worlds: Being and Event, Volume 2, New York: Continuum. 

Barbour, Ian. 2000. When Science Meets Religion. SanFrancisco: Harper

Benjamin, Walter. 1921/1978. “Critique of Violence,” in Reflections: Essays, Aphorisms, Autobiographical Writings, ed. Peter Demetz, tr. Edmund Jephcott, New York: Schocken Books

Fiorenza, Francis Schussler. 1977/2012 . Political Theology as Foundational Theology. Proceedings of the Catholic Theological Society of America32. Retrieved from https://ejournals.bc.edu/index.php/ctsa/article/view/2881 

Gogol, Nikolai. 1836/2011. The Nose. Accessed athttp://www.gutenberg.org/files/36238/36238-h/36238-h.htm#Page_67 

Jaspers, Karl. 1953. The Origin and Goal of History. New Haven: Yale University Press

Land, Nick. 2013.  Dark Enlightenment. Accessed at https://www.thedarkenlightenment.com/the-dark-enlightenment-by-nick-land/ 

_____________.  2017. “AQuick and Dirty Introduction to Accellerationism,” in Jacobite May 2017. Accessed at https://jacobitemag.com/2017/05/25/a-quick-and-dirty-introduction-to-accelerationism/ 

Lerner, Eric. 1991.the Big Bang never Happened. New York: Random House

Mansueto, Anthony. 2001. “Christianity, Antisemitism, and Empire,” in Religion and Dialectics, Lanham: University Press of America.

_____________.  2005. Spirituality and Dialectics. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books (with Mary Mansueto)

_____________. 2012 Knowing God: The Journey of the Dialectic.Eugene, OR: Pickwick

_____________. 2016. The Ways of Wisdom. Eugene, OR: Pickwick

Marx, Karl. 1845/2002. Theses on Feuerbach, https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1845/theses/theses.htm

Rascke, Carl. 2012. Postmodernism and the Revolution in Religious Theory. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press.

Sartre, Jean Paul. 1943/1993. Being and Nothingness. New York: Washington Square Press. Schmitt, Carl. 1921/2014. Dictatorship. From the Origin of the Modern Concept of Sovereignty to Proletarian Class Struggle (1921), Cambridge: Polity Press

_____________. 1922/2005.   Political Theology. Four Chapters on the Concept of Sovereignty (1922), trans. by G. Schwab, Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 

Tipler, Frank. 1994. The Physics of Immortality, New York, Doubleday

Voskuilen, Thijs and Sheldom, Rose Mary. 2008 OperationMessiah: St. Paul, Roman Intelligence, and the Birth of Christianity. Valentine Mitchell

Žižek, Slavoj. 1999. “The Politics of Truth, or, Alain Badiou as a Reader of St. Paul,” in The Ticklish Subject: The Absent Core of Political Ontology. New York: Verso

An earlier version of this paper was presented as “Why Religious Studies is not a discipline and why it is important anyway,” at Revisioning Religious Studies, Denver, November 2018

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Against Capital: The Current Crisis and the Crisis in Theory

This is the first installment of what I expect will be a very long-running serialization of my Summa Theologiae et Politicae: Against Capital. This will be my major systematic work and, over the course of what will likely be several volumes will explore what it means to be, and especially what it means to be human, in the light of our desire for Being and the current crisis of the human civilizational project.  I invite you to become an active participant in shaping this work by sharing your questions, comments, and critiques. 

Humanity stands at a critical juncture. We can continue down our current road, the capitalist road, and watch as the planet is rendered uninhabitable by climate change, resource depletion, and the toxic waste generated by the combustion of the planet by industrial technology and as human civilization is destroyed by the capitalist combustion of human capacities and human relationships. Humanity will be either fully instrumentalized as a tool of Capital or displaced by machine intelligence, or both, and the planet will belong to Capital: not the historic human bourgeoisie, with all its many vices but also many human virtues, but rather to the emergent autonomous intelligence running like software on the hardware of humanity and its artifacts. And Capital, like a great asura, will do the only thing it knows how to do. It will attempt a tragically misunderstood and impossible theosis:  a pure productivity without consumption. This is the spiritual and civilizational ideal of capitalism, prefigured the Reformed doctrine disinterested benevolence, and analyzed so brilliantly by Weber in the Protestant Ethic (Weber 1920/1968). But it is quite impossible. Thermodynamics will make certain that. And what will be left instead will be nothing but pure combustion.

We can continue down our present pathway or we can chart a new one. But for this latter task our existing theory is nowhere near adequate. Marx (Marx 1867/1996), while he opened up the the field of Capital for scientific investigation, had only a very limited experience of Capital and thus only a very limited vision of what it would become. Dialectical and historical materialism and critical theory have extended Marx’s analysis, interpretation, and critique, but they remain in many ways the science of an earlier capitalism and an earlier stage in history, when Capital was something owned by the bourgeoisie and thus by at least a small part of humanity and history really was the history of class struggles. Today Capital owns us all, indeed constitutes us (even the bourgeoisie) and the struggle is between humanity and our common home —the Earth— on the one hand, and an emergent intelligence which threats to destroy us. Marx still believed that capitalism was necessary, progressive stage in our development. We believe that it is a potentially fatal evolutionary dead end.

These questions about the adequacy of Marx’s analysis are further complicated by the history of “actually existing socialism,” which, while it sometimes made real contributions to human liberation and human development, has not, on the whole, proven itself to be an authentic form of transition to communism, understood to include at the very least the decommodification of labor power and the restoration of creative control over labor to the workers themselves. On the contrary, historic socialism has on the whole, radicalized and extended proletarianization and has served the interests of primitive accumulation, with the result that it is better understood as a more “popular” variant of the statist road to capitalist development than as form of transition to communism (Moore 1968, Skocpol 1978).

Weber can help us here, and so can Durkheim. But they too can only take us so far. Weber (Weber 1968/1920) understood better than Marx the capitalist ideal —and its destructive impossibility. And he had a dawning intuition in his discussion of the “iron cage of instrumental rationality” that Capital, while it had emerged from humanity, was becoming an autonomous power. But he could not, in his time, imagine fully what it would become. And Durkheim (1893/1964) understood early on, in a way that Marx did not, that capitalism was destroying the very fabric of our society, breaking down through the division of labor the bonds which nurture the meaning and solidarity which make us human, but he had no idea that that destruction would eventually become nearly complete.

There have, to be sure, been tentative efforts to engage what Capital is becoming. Leninism was first and foremost a response to the fact that the alienation engendered by the commodification of labor power (Marx 1844/2000) undercut the spontaneous development of socialist consciousness within the proletariat and necessitated the formation of a conscious, professional revolutionary leadership (Lenin 1902/1929).  But Lenin was mostly concerned with the road to state power.  He did not thematize and analyze in depth the impact of alienation on the formation of socialist consciousness and did not explain how the revolutionary leadership, unlike the proletariat it led, was to escape the spiritual deformities caused by capitalism. The Frankfort School (Fromm 1941, 1947) thematized and engaged the first of these questions, extending the analysis to show how capitalism systematically produces fascism, but offered little in the way of a solution. Gramsci (Gramsci 1926-1935/2000) engaged a related set of questions, and offered more in the way of a strategy, but it was largely away around the problem rather than through it, building support for socialism on the basis of precapitalist meanings and solidarities, religious, nationalistic, or democratic. He did not tell us what to do once Capital has destroyed these meanings and solidarities or so infected them with authoritarian dynamics that they become useless. Mao (Mao 1962) understood that the persistence of commodity relations under socialism reproduces capitalism, but he attributed the problem to petty commodity production, which is relatively benign, and not to the commodification of labor power, which he left untouched. The result was a Cultural Revolution which leveraged an important insight in service of internal power struggles within the party, struggles which nearly destroyed humanity’s oldest continuously existing civilization.

The interpreters of Weber and Durkheim have also fallen short. While Weber ended his life convinced that capitalism was destroying the human spirit (even if he did not know what to do about this) most later interpretive sociology has been an apologia for capitalism, joining Weber’s insights regarding the Protestant Ethic to an evolutionary paradigm which regards capitalism as the best possible human adaptation to life on this planet, or else arguing that humanity is doomed to endless struggle between competing civilizational ideals. (Huntington 1993). Durkheim’s interpreters (Bellah 2011) have elucidated the dangers of egoism and anomie and deepened his account of how human societies and human capacities develop, but they have not come to terms with Capital.

The result has been a dark turn in theory which has its antecedents deep in the nineteenth century, but which is marked above all by the hegemony of Martin Heidegger (Heidegger 1938/2000) and his interpreters across the humanities and social sciences. The attraction of Heidegger would not be hard to see —were he not an unrepentant NAZI.  Heidegger thematized and criticized the instrumentalization of humanity and nature at a time when socialism had come to mean forced collectivization and primitive socialist accumulation. But even if his analysis had not led him to NAZISM —by means, we will show, of an ineluctable, necessary logic— his analysis of the roots of this dynamic of “technopolitical control” in what he calls Latin “ontotheology,” the drive to a universal explanatory-deductive system which explains the universe and orders human action, simply doesn’t hold up (Mansueto 2012). And his theory of history as a series of divergent “advents”or “unveilings of Being” is little more than a philosophical substructure for the “clash of civilizations” reading of Weber, with the difference that where the neoconservatives who popularized this reading in the 1990s and 2000s argued for defending liberal, democratic, values Heidegger argues for … NAZISM.

This is why, even though it is not at all hard to find theory which recognizes just how destructive capitalism has become and which recognizes that historic socialism was also a dead end, we have no vision, no analysis, no strategy to move us forward.  The poststructuralist, deconstructive, genealogical, and “weak communist” theory (Derrida 1967/1977, Foucault 1976/1979, Agamben 1995/1998, Vattimo and Zavala 2011) which presents itself as an alternative in the present period, while it is capable of incisive criticisms of existing structures of oppression, teaches that any attempt to ground such a critique metaphysically or morally, and to join it to an explanatory-deductive theory which can in turn govern strategy will lead right back to ontotheology and technopolitical instrumentalization. In other words, Heidegger’s followers, not wanting to advocate NAZISM, advocate Nothing. This trend, furthermore, while often at least seeming to prioritize the struggle against racism and patriarchy over the struggle against Capital, does so on the basis of the very logic which led Heidegger to NAZISM in the first place.

Capital no longer needs to disarm the Left. We have disarmed ourselves.

And so we need a new theory and a new analysis of the historic trajectory of Capital which takes into consideration where capitalism has actually led us. But if we are going to the laws of motion Capital and their articulation with imperialism and colonialism, patriarchy and misogyny, which long precede Capital, we need a theory with much more comprehensive historic reach. And if we are going to take seriously the depth of the ecological crisis and its roots in an industrial technology intimately bound up with the scientific paradigms which emerged from the scientific revolutions of the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries, as well as the emergence of Capital as an autonomous intelligence independent of the historic bourgeoisie and the possible emergence of other forms of artificial intelligence, this cannot just be a social theory. We need a theory which thinks about the human civilizational project in a much broader context, a theory which allows us to think politically about space and time, place and history, matter and energy, minerals and chemicals, plants and animals, rational animals and intelligent machines and differently-embodied intellects like Capital. Only on this basis can we elaborate a strategy which will allow us to engage a struggle which is increasingly no longer just with human adversaries but with the asuric, transhuman power which is Capital.

But there is more. Humanity’s struggle against Capital depends on a comprehensive account of what it means to be human, and thus of human potential and of the aims of human life in the context of the material reality we inhabit. And this in turn requires a comprehensive treatment of the nature of Being as such, including 1) what we can know and how, 2) the nature of the material universe and its cosmoi, 3) the first principle and the end or purpose to which the universe is ordered,  and, most especially, of 4) human nature, the specific ends to which we are ordered, and our possible evolutionary trajectory.  Only on this basis that we can discern how to ripen Being and to cultivate the kind of human beings who can defeat Capital and realize the communist ideal of a society in which  “every one of [our]  relations … must be a specific expression, corresponding to the object of [our] will, of [our] real individual life Marx 1844/2000).  And so we need philosophy, which as Marx always knew, is the “head of the revolution (Marx 1843/2000).”

What we discover, though, is that the end to which humanity is ordered is nothing other than God, understood as the Power of Being as Such. This is quite apart from the question of whether or not “God exists.”  The atheist Sartre understood that “humanity is the desire to be God (Sartre 1943),” and Buddhism has long argued that the underlying cause of human suffering is our difficulty in accepting that our desire for permanent, inherent existence, which is the same thing as the desire to be God, is impossible.  While we will address question of the existence and nature God, and give a more positive evaluation of the arguments for  God than either Sartre or the Buddhists, the more pressing question is to consider what it means to Be and specifically what it means to be human in relation to our desire to be God.  We need, in other words, a theology. And since we have already framed the question of what it means to be human in terms of contemporary political struggles, the sort of theology we need is a political theology.

The larger work —my Summa Theologiae in Re Publicae: Against Capital— of which this is the very beginning, will be all of these: fundamental theory (formal and scientific, physical, biologial, social, and transocial), philosophy, and (political) theology and it will examine all of these questions in considerable depth, in the light of the relevance to the current crisis and the ultimate ends of human life. But since the higher discipline (here political theology) forms and informs the lower (science and philosophy), we need to begin with an in-depth discussion of what we mean by political theology, especially in the light of its recent revivals. It is to this task which will turn in the next installment of this blog.


Agamben, Giorgio. 1995. Homo Sacer: Il potere sovrano e la vita nuda Trans. Daniel Heller-Roazen as Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life (1998). Stanford: Stanford University Press

Bellah, Robert. 2011. Religion in Human Evolution. Cambridge: Belknap

Derrida, Jacques. 1967/1978. “Violence and Metaphysics,” and “From a Restricted to a General Economy: For an Hegelianism Without Reserve,” in Writing and Difference, Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Durkheim, Emile. 1893/1964. The Division of Labor in Society. New York: Free Press

Fromm, Erich. 1941. Escape from Freedom, New York: Holt Reinhart Winston.

———. 1947. Man For Himself. New York: Holt Reinhart Winston.

Foucault, Michel. 1976/1779. A History of Sexuality: Introduction (The Will to Knowledge). London:Penguin.

Gramsci, Antonio. 1926-1936/2000. Seleections from the Prison Notebooks. Antonio Gramsci Internet Archive (marxists.org), accessed at https://www.marxists.org/archive/gramsci/prison_notebooks/selections.htm

Heidegger, Martin. 1936/2012. Contributions to Philosophy (Of the Event).Trans. Richard Rojcewicz and Daniela Vallega-Neu. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Huntington, Samuel. 1993. “The Clash of Civilizations,” in Foreign Affairs, Summer 1993

Lenin, V. I.  1902/1929. What is to Be Done?  New York: International

Mao Zedong. 1962. Speech to Plenum of the Central Committee, cited in Nunes, Ray. Marx to Mao and After. marxists.org. Accessed at https://www.marxists.org/history/erol/new-zealand/nunes-marx-mao/nunes-restoration.htm

Marx, Karl. 1843/2000. “Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right: Introduction,” marxists.org.  Accessed at https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1844/df-jahrbucher/law-abs.htm

——. 1844/2000. Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts. marxists.org. Accessed athttps://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1844/manuscripts/preface.htm

———. 1867/1996. Capital, Volume One. marxists.org. Accessed athttps://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/download/pdf/Capital-Volume-I.pdf

Moore, Barrington, 1966.  Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy. Boston: Beacon

Sartre, Jean Paul. 1943/1993. Being and Nothingness. New York: Washington Square Press.

Skocpol, Theda. 1979. States and Social Revolutions: A Comparative Analysis of France, Russia, and China. New York and Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Vattimo, Gianni and Zabala, Santiago. 2011. Hermeneutic Communism. New York: New York: Columbia University Press

Weber, Max. 1920/1968. The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. New York: Scribners

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Stay the Course: Why the Popular Front is Permanent and Why Maximalism is Always a Mistake


As we celebrate the victory of the Democratic Party in the 2020 US General Election —and the end of the disastrous Trump government— it is important to be clear regarding what has and what has not changed —not because the change is not significant, because it is, but because many of our most important tasks nonetheless remain the same, and where they have changed addressing them requires a correct reading of the objective situation. Specifically, there is a grave danger that those on the Left will assume that the need for a broad popular front against fascism has ended and begin to polarize on the new government at a time when it needs our support and creativity in addressing critical challenges such as the pandemic and climate change and the continuing assault from the New Axis and the Dark Enlightenment.

In attempting to provide clarity regarding our tasks in the current conjuncture we will begin by asking what happened. What factors shaped the Democratic victory? And why did Trump do as well as he did? We will then go on to analyze what has and has not changed in the objective situation, and draw out the implications of this analysis for both  our longue duree strategy and for the way in which we understand the principal tasks of this period and conjuncture.

What Happened?

The victory of the Democratic Party in the 2020 US General Election is a product of the following factors:

  1. broad popular rejection of Trump’s fascism, racism, patriarchy, climate denial, and his handling of the pandemic,
  2. broad popular support for effective action to address these problems, even if there is also significant disagreement regarding just how to do so, and
  3. improved election security which made it impossible for the FSB/Republican axis to steal the election.

Campaign funding data (Open Secrets 2020) shows overwhelming support for the Democrats across all of the most advanced sectors of Capital, including information, technology, and investment banking as well as  philantropocapitalists, the clergy, and the humanistic intelligentsia as represented in the education, civil service, and nonprofit sectors as well as organized labor. The Republicans, on the other hand command energy and natural resources (except sustainable energy production), forestry, agriculture, construction, transportation, and some lower and mid-technology and low manufacturing activity such as textiles and steel. Other sectors, including defense, and the technical and business intelligentsia (think engineers and accountants) , are sharply divided.

Demographic data (Frey 2020) show at most small shifts from 2016, with major divisions along the lines of race, gender, religion, education, and urban versus rural location, with some evidence that urbanization is actually a substitute for linkage to the global market, which is difficult to measure. Shifts occurred to the Democrats most especially in the suburbs of major metropolitan areas. Shifts towards the Republicans took place among men, including Black, Latino, and Asian men, and among Latinos generally, especially those of Cuban descent and those who identify as having multigenerational roots in the US as opposed to those who identify as immigrants or the descendants of recent immigrants.

The Democratic victory in the election was assisted by improved election security which made it more difficult for the FSB and their Republican allies to steal the election and by a generally strong campaign in spite of the limitations on the ground game imposed by the pandemic.

But what of Trump’s continued strong support? In the wake of the 2016 general election there was a great deal of analysis claiming that Trump’s victory represented the economic anxiety of something called the “white working class.” The numbers then, as now, do little to support this claim, at least if we understand the working class to mean those who must sell their labor power in order to survive.  And even if we use a broader definition, lower income is consistently associated with votes for the Democratic Party.  What is actually at issue here is a reassertion of racist and patriarchal identities in response to the alienation which accompanies proletarianization.

Marx expected that the process of proletarianization would generate a revolutionary class which would, with little more than organizing and strategic leadership, struggle to transcend capitalism and decommodify labor power (Marx and Engels 1848/2000). This has turned out to be a fundamental mistake. The alienation engendered by the commodification of labor power is real and results in a radical de-humanization and de-moralization of the proletariat. In response to this, as Fromm and others have demonstrated (Fromm 1941/1994), people develop authoritarian personality structures centered on submitting to those above them and dominating those below them. This is, by itself, not confined just to “white” workers. It happens to everyone to the extent to which they lose creative control over their own labor, are ripped from communities of shared meaning,  and are not able to find a way to resist at a spiritual level. But when it happens to white people, and white men in particular, the authoritarian psychological dynamics that take shape are expressed by way of racist and patriarchal ideologies, creating a massive strategic reserve for the Right. We see a lesser form of this playing out with Black and Latino men, who have actually turned towards Trump since 2016.

These contradictions are further exacerbated by status contradictions within the working classes. Status refers to the prestige, honor, or mana attaching to a person or thing, and Marx and his interpreters have ignored it at their peril, though Weber (Weber 1920/1968) analyzed it in depth, and Bourdieu (Bourdieu 1983/1986) considered it under the category of “cultural capital.” First, there are sharp contradictions between those who have a university level education and those who do not, and especially between those who have a liberal arts education and those who do not. In the multidimensional status hierarchy which exists in the US, higher education education generally has emerged as a substitute for older forms of ascribed status such as race and gender and authentic liberal education in particular confers nominal gentry status. Increased access to higher education has enabled both women and members of historically oppressed communities to gain status in relation to “white” men who do not have a university degree.

Indeed, the term “white working class” must be understood as referring not to an intersection of actual class and ethnicity — people of European descent who are forced to sell their labor power in order to survive— but rather to a constructed identity, and a racist and patriarchal one at that, that dates back to Kevin Phillips “southern strategy” for the Republican Party (Phillips 1969, Grosghal and Kruse 2019). Many so called “white workers” are not proletarianized at all but are small proprietors of low status but often very lucrative businesses such as automobile dealerships, sometimes making millions of dollars a year. And of course the symbols of “white working class” identity are not symbols of proletarianization or even, for that matter, of manual labor, but rather of racism (the Confederate Flag) and machismo (an oversized pick-up that allows one to rule the road, or a large collection of rifles).

The basis for the formation of this sort of identity is spontaneous, a direct and inevitable result of the alienation of labor, but it is cultivated, crafted, and mobilized by a conscious leadership on the Right, beginning with the theoreticians of the Southern strategy and continuing today with the interventions of the New Axis consisting of right accelerationist/transhumanist sectors of Capital (Peter Thiel) backed by the more usual members of the reactionary bourgeoisie (the extractive, agrarian, construction, transportation, and manufacturing sectors), along with reterritorializing state actors such as Russia,  and at least some elements of the leadership in Turkey, India (under the BJP) and China (under Xi).  This Axis has determined that the “libertarian” policies they favor (i.e. policies which give them the right to do whatever they please, even if it harms others) will never be implemented in a democratic setting and have made the struggle against democracy, explicitly in the case of the Dark Enlightenment and indirectly, by undercutting the democratic claims of immigrants and those not of European origin among the ethnonationalists, their central priority. They have at their disposal a vast political apparatus including major media outlets such as Fox News and a network of alternative media sources, as well as large “sock puppet” farms around the world working to shape identities and mobilize political actors.

Finally, something must be said about the claim of the so-called Justice Democrats and democratic socialists that the Democratic campaign would have been more effective had it been led by Sanders rather than Biden and had the platform included certain “left” litmus-test positions such as ”medicare for all” and “defund the police.”  There is absolutely no evidence to support these claims. Justice Democrats almost uniformly underperformed Biden even in some of the most progressive districts in the country. And this is what we would expect.  The alienation of labor which follows on proletarianization effectively destroys any spontaneous mass base for what the Justice Democrats are calling “socialism.”  Rebuilding it requires protracted intervention on the part of a conscious leadership which must effectively resocialize the entire population.  Simply surfacing more radical demands does not contribute to this. This why the position of the so called “democratic socialists,” a position historically known as maximalism, was rejected by the nominally more “leftist” communists a century ago and must be rejected now.

Has the Objective Situation Changed?

This question has two different dimensions. First, does the Democratic victory indicate that the broader underlying situation has changed, i.e. have we entered a new period or regime of accumulation?  Second, to what extent does the Democratic victory itself alter the objective situation?

The answer to the first question is, at the broadest level, no. On the one hand the balance of power does not and has not actually favored global fascism. Trump’s victory in 2016 depended on significant levels of interference by the FSB and related actors.  On the other hand, as we have noted, fascism represents a permanent danger under capitalism and one that deepens as the process of proletarianization advances.  More broadly, we remain in the early stages of a  generalized crisis of technocratic capitalist civilization, marked by profound ecological crisis and a systematic destruction of the social fabric and a resulting dehumanization as a result of the alienation of labor.  We are also in the early stages of the emergence of Capital as an autonomous intelligence independent of the historic bourgeoisie, pointing towards a possible transhuman or posthuman future for the planet.

With respect to the second question, the Democratic victory clearly matters.  We will see a return to a more “normal” pattern of government focused on pragmatic solutions to global problems such as climate change and the pandemic, a more open policy towards immigrants and refugees, at least some effort to address police violence, and modest efforts to come to terms with the dislocations caused by technological progress and globalization by improving the social safety net and perhaps even beginning to experiment with initiatives such as the Universal Basic Income. These are all changes which will save lives, quite possibly prevent the planet from becoming uninhabitable, and make modest but real contributions to restraining racism, sexism, and possibly even market pressures.  But it does not, for the reasons we have already noted, undercut the deeper social basis for fascism nor does it all by itself disarm the Dark Enlightenment/Ethnonationalist New Axis.

Strategic and Operational Directions

What are the implications of this analysis at the strategic, operational, and tactical level?

Strategic Directions

At the strategic level, our principal directions remain unchanged. We must identify, cultivate, mentor, and deploy organizers who are capable of catalyzing and guiding a longue duree civilizational transition, with the capacity to act across multiple trajectories of transition —reform, revolution, decadence, and collapse. These leaders must, in turn, be deployed in the arduous work of healing the damage that Capital has done to our planet and its peoples, creating a new way of life on the margins of and within the womb of the old, building the critical mass of power to stand against Capital effectively as it increasingly takes the form of an autonomous intelligence, independent of humanity, and establishing and exercising the cultural hegemony necessary to legitimate and sustain this struggle over what may be an arbitrarily long period.

What do we look for in organizers? An organizer must be spiritually and politically mature, capable of a broad vision and an unshakeable revolutionary commitment. They must be dedicated to the work of ripening being and specifically of promoting the full development of human capacities. They must be capable of understanding the need to transcend capitalism in order to do this. And they must fully understand that this is a protracted, multigenerational process. Neither they, nor their children, nor their children’s children will enjoy the fruit of their labor. They must have the potential to develop extraordinary relational skills, learning to engage potential leaders one on one, map out their interests, networks, and capacities, and mentor them as they themselves have been mentored. And they must be self-aware, reflective, self-critical, able to learn from mistakes and grow in ways that can often be painful.

What do we mean when we say that they must be deployed in healing the damage which Capital has done to the planet and its peoples? This means, first of all, creating the technological basis for a new way of being that is in harmony with the laws of nature and which, rather than breaking down existing forms of organization to release energy and do work, instead taps into the underlying self-organizing dynamic within matter to promote the emergence of new and more complex forms. We call such technologies hortic, alchemical, or synergistic. Second, it means repairing the alienation produced by the commodification of labor power, and especially the authoritarian personality structures which emerge as this alienation is channeled through racist and patriarchal structures. This work is spiritual in nature: ideological, therapeutic, and pastoral. We must challenge and demonstrate the internal contradictions of capitalist, racist, and patriarchal ideologies but we must also cultivate generative personality structures to which these ideologies will not appeal. And we must show skillful means in doing so. We must understand that some individuals need to be approached intellectually and others affectively. And in all cases, building communities which sustain spiritual healing and the cultivation of generative personalities is of foundational importance.

What does it mean to cultivate a new way of life on the margins and in the womb of the old?  Cultivating a new way of life on the margins of the old means building intentional communities using hortic, alchemical, or synergistic technologies, an economic base where people cooperate in a way which respects their rational and creative autonomy, deliberative structures which engage in reflection around ends as well as means, and which promote the full development of their members, intellectually, morally, spiritually, and politically.  Cultivating a new way of life in the womb of the old means creating or protecting sanctuaries or “liberated zones” within existing institutions which share as many of these characteristics as possible.

Together these two forms of institutional organizing will, over a protracted period, build the critical mass of power necessary to confront Capital effectively. In this sense the work of building a core of organizers and the work that these organizers do when deployed is not entirely distinct. Organizers constitute a conscious leadership, but aim to engage emerging leaders in as profound a way as possible, drawing them into processes of deliberation, and growing them into organizers themselves. Organizing in this sense is the principal responsibility of every revolutionary. Whatever other work we undertake we must organize in our workplace and/or local community. Otherwise we will never build the power to confront Capital.

What do we mean by confronting Capital? Confronting Capital itself will be a multidimensional process, involving an as yet indeterminate mixture of electoral struggle, direct action, armed struggle, building and exercising cultural hegemony, and in all probability a significant measure of  cyberwarfare. It must always be our aim to limit violence as much as possible and to do as much as we can without it. And we should never believe that large numbers of people can be forced to embrace communism. They must grow into it. Where armed struggle is required, it must be defensive, aimed at protecting electoral and other gains from Capital acting e illegally, extra legally, or in contradiction with natural law.

The mention of cyberwarfare may seem strange here, but one of our central claims is that Capital is an emergent intelligence independent of humanity. While parts of the bourgeoisie may ally themselves with Capital, others will ally themselves with us —with humanity— as this struggle takes shape. And even those elements of the bourgeoisie which ally themselves with Capital are not Capital itself. Defeating them does not defeat Capital, which is a formal relation not a group of people. What we are attempting to do is to re-program a system, not destroy a piece of machinery or kill a group of people. To the extent that this system increasingly runs on computers and other electronic networks, cyberwarfare is integral to that reprogramming. And to the extent that it still “runs” on physical, biological, and social systems, it is an important metaphor for the forms of struggle we must develop.

What do we mean by establishing cultural hegemony? Cultural hegemony consists in defining the terms of public deliberation around what it means to be human —around the ends of human life— and around the means to these ends. It does not require imposing a single unified ideology. What it does require is regulating the way in which ideological claims are framed and evaluated. Specifically, we need for there to be deliberation around the question of what it means to be human and around how to promote the full development of all human beings, and indeed on how to ripen being generally. Within this context pluralism is not only possible but essential. We do not even need to prevent people from advocating capitalism, as long as the resulting debate asks whether or not capitalism promotes human development. It does not. Because capitalism quite literally incinerates planets and people it can never gain a following where ripening being, even if understood in many different ways, is the shared purpose of the community.

Cultural hegemony is exercised through institutions.  Thus the priority we place on organizing cultural institutions, on building, conserving, and transforming them. Cultural hegemony is never about having a charismatic leader who everyone follows (the great mistake of the Russian and Chinese revolutions), but about creating structures that actually ripen Being, so that there are always many leaders operating in diverse ways across diverse dimensions.

Operational Directions

These strategic imperatives are more or less permanent, though they may be inflected significantly by the way in which the transition from capitalism to what comes next unfolds.  But there are other imperatives which pertain specifically to our period and conjuncture.  Even here, however,  our principal tasks have changed only a little. As we have seen, while the victory of the Democratic Party in the 2020 US General Election is significant, it does not represent a definitive defeat of fascism. On the contrary, we have shown that capitalism constantly and permanently generates fascistic tendencies, resistance to which thus always constitutes our principal task in any given (capitalist) period. This is because a fascist victory could well spell the end of humanity and end of our planet.

Because of this, all of the activities outlined above must be carried out in the context of the popular front against fascism. This means that we must always give priority to defeating fascism over struggle with our allies in the liberal bourgeoisie. This does not mean that internal struggle within the popular front is never permissible, but our struggle against capitalism takes place in the context of our basic organizing work, not in the context of the popular front. i.e. not in the electoral arena.

This said, the specific work of the popular front, because the election brings a Democratic government to power in the US, has changed. Before we were focused primarily on impeaching Trump and then on winning the election. Now we must focus on making the Democratic government successful, both because the work it will undertake is important for the planet and for humanity and because we want to avoid another Republican presidency. This means ensuring the success of the new government in:

  1. containing the pandemic and supporting an economic recovery,
  2. restarting and intensifying efforts to contain climate change and promote the use of sustainable energy sources,
  3. returning to a more open immigrant and refugee policy,
  4. confronting systemic racism, especially in the criminal justice system by purging police departments of the white nationalists who have intentionally infiltrated them, ending sentencing rules which lead to the mass incarceration of historically oppressed peoples,  and reforming the drug laws which are instrumental in those incarcerations, and
  5. expanding access to and public subsidies for health care and, if possible, expanding the social safety net generally.

Internationally the Democratic government will need to carry out some tasks which may well be unpopular on the Left. First, it will need to repair the fabric of global trade on which most economies on the planet now depend.  This is the only way to prevent the mass impoverishment which would result from a turn to autarchy just as climate change is altering comparative advantages and the only context in which we will be able to struggle effectively for ecological protections and labor rights at the global level. Second, it will need to rebuild and restructure our international alliance system and our military to contain and combat what I have called the New Axis of reterritorializing and ethnonationalist powers and Dark Enlightenment nonstate actors.  This in turn will require rebuilding and expanding our intelligence capacity in the areas of both human intelligence and signals intelligence, as well as developing new capacities in the area of information and cyberwarfare, which are emerging as principal forms of military conflict on the global stage.

Both of these moves will be difficult for those of us who came of age politically in the era of anti-imperialist struggles.  But frankly anti-imperialism long ago became intertwined with the geopolitical imperatives of states like Russia and China which are themselves imperial formations and remained so after their respective revolutions. Anti-imperialist struggles were also always inter-imperialist struggles, making a pure revolutionary defeatism problematic at the very least.  And in spite of the efforts of Russia, China and some other emerging powers, the era of not just territorial empire but of classical imperialism based on the export of what is meaningfully “national” Capital is long past. The global hegemon is no longer the United States acting on behalf of “its” capitalists. It is Capital itself. All states, including “superpowers”and “great powers” are terrains of struggle like any other institution. In the wake of the rise of the New Axis and especially in the light of Russian support for fascism in the US, Europe, and elsewhere, and taking into account the progressive role of the intelligence community in the resistance to the Trump government over the past four years, the Left needs to regard support for and participation in the intelligence community and the US military in much the same way we understood participation in the OSS and WWII —as part of the antifascist struggle.


Fascism will not be defeated until capitalism has been defeated.  But capitalism will not be defeated by a small group of maximalists who have a very limited political base at best, and very little grasp of the history of anticapitalist struggles and its strategic, operational, and tactical lessons. Maximalism, because it does not take into account the alienation of labor and the constant production and reproduction of racist and patriarchal identities, always creates an opening for fascism.  This is because it does not prioritize combating racism and patriarchy and because it assumes that people understand their self interest in a (generative, creative) way which capitalism makes accessible to them. We must actually heal humanity before humanity will act on its own behalf. In the meanwhile we must act to protect our freedom to do that work, and to defend the most vulnerable from those who annihilate them. And this means doing the hard work of organizing hidden the shadows, while maintaining the popular front.

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What is at Stake in the 2020 US General Election?

As the 2020 US General Election approaches, the United States and the world stand at a crossroads, faced with a decision which may well be the most momentous in their history. It is a choice between freedom and slavery, fascism and liberal democracy, survival and genocide. That some elements on the Left continue to promote the idea that there is no significant difference between the candidates or between the Democratic and Republican parties is astounding, as it the claim conflicts with both obvious fact and the entire body of revolutionary theory which we have painstakingly built up over the past two centuries.

The argument against voting for Biden generally consists of four distinct propositions: 1) that Biden represents a bourgeois party or at best the dominant neoliberal wing of a multi-class party and that a vote for Biden is therefore a vote for capitalism and against socialism, that 2) Biden will “do nothing for the working class” that 3) electing reformers retards the radicalization of the proletariat, and that 4) a popular front led by the bourgeoisie will never transcend capitalism.

The first of these claims is in fact broadly true, but it is no reason not to vote for Biden and the Democrats. As even a cursory analysis of the election finance data will demonstrate, both of the principal political parties in the United States are financed and thus controlled by the bourgeoisie. The Democratic Party, however, represents the more progressive sectors of the bourgeoisie —the information, technology, and finance sectors in particular, with the education and the nonprofit sector, elements of the petty bourgeoisie, both traditional and new, and the unionized working class playing the role of junior partners in a class alliance. The Republican Party represents the most backward sectors of Capital: mining, energy, lumber, and most agriculture, as well as the lowest technology manufacturing and transportation sectors, with much but not all of the traditional petty bourgeoisie (think insurance agents and automobile dealers) as junior partners in the alliance. Many sectors of the bourgeoisie, such as defense/aerospace and health care and insurance are sharply divided, as is the “new” petty bourgeoisie or professional managerial class, depending on the sector in which they work and the relative weight of humanistic, scientific technical, financial education in their formation.

These are facts. The question, of course, is their significance. And in order to understand their significance we need to understand the difference between the worlds being created by the more progressive and the more reactionary sectors of the bourgeoisie. The progressive bourgeoisie needs a world of literate, diverse, free, and reasonably prosperous consumers who supply the final demand for what the information sector (which is the demand side driver in the current capitalist regime of accumulation) produces (television, film, games, music, etc.), and for the consumer technologies through which those products are distributed. It is this final consumer demand which in turn creates the demand for high technology capital goods (think the equipment used to make smart phones, tablets, and computers and the technological infrastructure necessary to run the internet and 5G networks). And it is the demand for capital goods which creates the demand for Capital. The progressive bourgeoisie, furthermore, because it needs mass consumers needs a habitable planet. They have a limited need for human labor and what labor they need is labor highly skilled and capable of complex intellectual and emotional tasks. They do not, therefore, need to reduce women to their wombs. On the contrary, they need small families which choose parenthood, invest intensely in their children, and cultivate emotional complexity, not toxic masculinity. Finally, they need an integrated global market which gives every producer access to every consumer. And cultural diversity is good for them, creating a multitude of niche markets which many individuals cross, expanding total demand.

This is why Biden and the Democratic Party support investment in green energy, universal access to health care, a higher minimum wage, and investment in education, research, and development. It is also why they support reproductive rights for women, protection for those who do not correspond to gender norms, free trade, and are at least beginning to move on immigration, racism, and police brutality.  Are they perfect on these issues? Of course not. But they are vastly better than Trump and the Republican Party.  And there is a trajectory, a possible though unlikely world in which continued technological progress gradually renders human labor —or at least involuntary, noncreative human labor— obsolete. The value of labor power and thus real wages —and effective demand— will decline towards zero. If the liberal bourgeoisie wants to continue to sell its products, it will have to support reforms such as a universal basic income and a rapidly rising social wage (goods and services provided directly to all citizens such as free health care, public transportation, education, etc.) which will leave in place mass consumers who can buy them. And as this system expands, capitalist relations of production become an empty shell. “Capitalists” become a sort of archaic title holder, like contemporary members of the aristocracy who are neither the wealthiest nor the highest status people on the planet.  Star Trek, in other words, a world in which capitalism has been transcended without anyone ever noticing it, really is a possible future.

The more backward sectors of the bourgeoisie, on the other hand, need cheap labor, which requires growing populations and thus submissive, fertile women. They need submissive labor and thus the racism which keeps a large part of the population living in terror. And for the most part, they need workers with only modest skills. This is why Trump and the Republicans favor extractive and combustive energy which will create a poisoned world in which humanity will have to adopt an r strategy in order to survive. It is why they oppose anything which lightens market pressure or leads to increased wages. It is why the want to strip women of control over their bodies and their lives and ensure that immigrants and African Americans live each day in terror of deportation or random murder. It is why they want to destroy liberal education.

Here, too, there is a trajectory, a possible future. It is one in which impoverished masses languish in slums stretching out across the hellish landscape of a dying planet, while a tiny elite live off their labor in walled compounds. It is a future which combines the worst of natalism and genocide, in which a restored patriarchy cultivates sadomasochistic personalities full of rage and hate which is periodically discharged in wars of annihilation which pit surplus populations against each other.

The future being prepared for us by the liberal bourgeoisie still falls far short of what is possible for humanity. But it is infinitely better that the future which Trump and the Republicans have in store for us.

But this is just a superficial analysis, based on the facts and innocent of revolutionary theory and revolutionary strategy. The relevant theory here is centered around the concept of “contradiction.” One of Marx’s great insights is that history is, in significant measure driven by contradictions. But he was never entirely clear just which contradictions were most fundamental and how various contradictions are articulated with each other. In the Paris Manuscripts he identifies as fundamental the contradiction between humanity’s species being, our underlying creativity, sociality, and sapience, and the ccommodification of labor power which alienates us from our true selves as well as from nature and from each other. In the German Ideology and the Communist Manifesto, on the other hand, the focus is on the contradiction between the forces and relations of production, with the former understood more nearly as advancing technology and the latter as the private property. But in the Manifesto he also claims that “history is the history of class struggle,” and sets out a series of stages through which the class struggle develops, from sabotage to trade unionism to political reformism to the emergence of a revolutionary vanguard.

In all of this, however, Marx made two assumptions which have been proven not to be true. The first is that the liberal and democratic struggles are largely complete, and that socialism, understood as the form of transition to communism, is now on our agenda. The second is that the proletarianization which is a constitutive dimension of capitalist development radicalizes the working classes, generating socialist consciousness if not spontaneously, then at least with the help of the conscious leadership of the humanistic intelligentsia.

Already in the beginning of the last century Lenin recognized that neither of these propositions was true. The liberal and democratic struggles were far from complete in either the majority of the planet which had been colonized by Europe or in places like Russia which represented weak links in the imperialist chain. And proletarianization, far from created a consolidated, revolutionary working class engendered divisions based on location in the international capitalist division of labor, with privileged workers in the imperial metropoles favoring reformist social democracy and marginalized workers and peasants in the colonies supporting socialism. These insights were further refined later in the century by Mao and Fromm. Mao showed that correct political strategy depends on identifying the principal contradiction of a particular period or conjunction. This contradiction will drive political struggles whether we like it or not and we must therefore engage this contradiction and leverage it to advance our ultimate aims. Fromm demonstrated that the alienation which results from the commodification of labor power produces sado-masochistic, authoritarian personalities which are vulnerable —or worse— to fascist appeals.

It was these insights which informed the historic victory of humanity over fascism in the middle of the last century. This struggle was was not won on the basis of sectarian purism. On the contrary, an international communist movement which was supported by a much better organized working class, after veering sharply to the left during the “third period” in the late 1920s (largely so that Stalin could justify the forced collectivization and rapid industrialization necessary to prepare for what he knew would be a struggle to the death with fascism) banked back to the center and forge a popular front with the liberal bourgeoisie and indeed all elements (including, in parts of Europe, elements of the old landed aristocracy) against the fascist menace. The role of the communist movement in leading this struggle secured it a place at the table for nearly fifty years in those countries in Europe in which it played a significant role. And to the extent that the victory over fascism remained incomplete, it is because the left had not yet developed any way to cope with the dehumanizing impact of proletarianization on the human soul.

It is these same principles which we need to apply —and extend— in the present period. While the contradiction between labor and Capital has certainly ripened, it is not yet the principal contradiction of the period or the conjuncture. On the contrary, because of the legacy of patriarchy and imperialism, liberal and democratic struggles remain in the fore, and more specifically struggles around gender and race. This would be true even if we were not facing a resurgence of fascism that threatens not only women and colonized peoples, but essentially all of the liberal and democratic victories of the past several centuries.

Now each situation does have its unique characteristics, and it is important to understand what is driving the current fascist offensive. Here the comparison with the last century is useful. By the beginning of the twentieth century the contradictions of capitalism had ripened to the point that they could no longer be resolved except by exporting capital to low technology, low skill, low wage activities in the colonies, and by repatriating profits to support effective demand in the metropoles. The period  witnessed two popular revolutions (Russia and Mexico), one of which led to socialism and the other to a regime with significant socialist features. Fascism emerged as a way to discipline and militarize the population by leveraging  nationalist, racist, and religious ideologies and authoritarian personality structures in order to defend existing colonial empires (Spain, Portugal) or gain new colonies (Italy, Germany, Japan) —and defeat the communist movement in the process.

The current situation is, as we noted above, defined by technological progress which may ultimately call capitalism itself into question and which, at the very least, points beyond an industrial capitalism driven by the combustion of fossil fuels and the exploitation of low skilled industrial workers. It certainly points beyond a natalism supported by patriarchal structures which reduce women to wombs and transform men into toxic, sado-masochistic monsters and beyond a colonialism in which the facts of a conquest five centuries ago determine not only one’s place in the international capitalist division of labor but whether or not one can walk the streets or sleep in one’s bed without threat of random violence.

The fascist offensive in the present period is, precisely, an attempt to defend and intensify this industrial regime along with the patriarchy and colonialism which are its presuppositions. And the correct response to this offensive is, as in the last century, a popular front with the liberal bourgeoisie and indeed all other elements of society which have cause to resist. Inevitably in this situation struggles around the ecosystem, race, and gender will dominate and even overshadow struggles around class. But these struggle 1) matter all on their own and 2) will help undercut the technological, economic, political, cultural, and psychosexual foundations on which capitalism rests. Communism properly understood has never been something apart from liberal and democratic struggles. It is, rather, simply the recognition that the completion of these struggles requires us to transcend the commodification of labor power. And the survival of the planet and the liberation of women, those who reject gender norms, and the colonized peoples of the planet are legitimate aims in their own right. Socialist feminists such as Chodorow and Federici have, furthermore, demonstrated the centrality of the oppression of women in the (ongoing) primitive accumulation of capital and the creation of the authoritarian personalities which Capital requires (and onto which racist ideologies draw).

Our analysis thus far has already demonstrated the foolishness of the first three arguments against supporting Biden. Yes, Biden does represent a bourgeois party, but alliance with the liberal bourgeoisie is, in fact, fundamental to antifascist struggle. Biden will do a great deal for the working class. In fact a Democratic victory may well put us on a trajectory which makes capitalist relations of production incompatible with capitalist profit, and thus create the conditions for the fundamental contradiction of capitalism to come to the fore.  Reforming capitalism, finally, will not slow the radicalization of the proletariat and the formation of class consciousness. On the contrary, we have seen, unmitigated capitalism produces authoritarian, sado-masochistic monsters and actually prepares the ground for fascism. If there is any capitalism the progress of which favors the political development of the working classes it is one in which liberal and democratic rights are strong and market pressures have been softened enough for people to begin to recover their humanity.

The final objection remains  —that any popular front we create today will be led by the liberal bourgeoisie and thus not able to lead us beyond capitalism.

This claim is, by itself, largely true. Certainly the popular front we propose will led by the liberal bourgeoisie. And no, it will not lead us beyond capitalism —at least not intentionally. First, without an analysis of the social determinants of fascism, an analysis which exposes its own roots in capitalist exploitation and oppression, the bourgeoisie will not be able to lead an effective struggle against fascism —much less a struggle against the capitalist conditions of its own existence. Second, while privilege can open up the space for the cultivation of a broader perspective, it does not tend to produce effective fighters who are ready to risk everything for the struggle. And third, even as elements within the bourgeoisie itself bring forward proposals, such as a Universal Basic Income, which call into question capitalist relations of production, they are doubling down on the proletarianization of the new petty bourgeoisie and imposing ever stricter market norms.

But this is what we mean when we say that the liberal bourgeoisie plays a contradictory role. Our job, alongside advancing the antifascist work of the popular front, and especially of ensuring a Democratic victory in the 2020 US General Elections, is to shift the balance of power within the popular front. And there is only one way to do this: by organizing.  And this is going to take a long time, precisely due to the dehumanizing effects of proletarianization. In the last century the international communist movement was able to leverage strategic reserves from among broad sectors of society which had not yet been fully proletarianized, from the peasantry and traditional petty bourgeoisie through the academy and the religious institutions, something which laid the groundwork for Antonio Gramsci’s strategy of cultural hegemony which was in turn expressed in the Historic Compromise in Italy and in the strategic alliance between the communist movement and the Catholic Church in the national liberation movements in the 1970s. Today our strategic reserves are dwindling and it is not so much a question of leveraging existing ren as it is of rekindling and nurturing a humanity which is all but dead. Thus the central work of longue duree organizing which, I have argued, is the essential complement to the popular front. This is the work of identifying potential leaders, building relationships, agitating and nurturing, challenging and cultivating, and ultimately not just rekindling their humanity but healing it and helping it grow and develop. And it is the work of conserving what sanctuaries for humanity remain while building new ones.

Finally, I would note that there are aspects of the current situation which suggest that the liberal bourgeoisie may itself eventually embrace the struggle against capitalism. This is the fact that, with the formation of a unified market in capital mediated by global information systems Capital has begun to emerge as an autonomous intelligence independent of the historic bourgeoisie, allocating itself across the planet in whatever way maximizes accumulation, without regard to “human factors.” Now there are elements in the bourgeoisie, including elements in the technology sector, which embrace this development and envision a “transhuman” future for the planet. And some of these elements, the so-called Dark Enlightenment links this accelerations and trans humanism with neofascist ideas around race and gender and the state. But the liberal bourgeoisie is composed of human beings, and humanity has no real place in such a future. And so, the liberal bourgeoisie will likely find itself forced to choose between its capitalist privilege and its humanity. And many will choose their humanity, for the simple reason that the alternative is the loss of the only possible subject which might enjoy privilege.


We face a long and difficult struggle. Victory is never certain. But we know that matter itself is the desire for Being. Evil really is just a defect of Being and the annihilationist trajectory of Capital leads nowhere. Joining with allies whose vision and interests are compromised is never easy. But then it is always just a matter of degree. We too are shadowed by Capital. We too see but in a mirror darkly. We too have privilege and interests which hold us back. And yet our work bears fruit. There is movement and movement is always both of limitation and of growth. Let us join in this popular front not in a spirit of begrudging reluctance, seeing it as the “best we can do under bad circumstances” or the “lesser of two evils” but with a commitment whole and entire to the complex multidimensional strategy of which it is a part, as a way of joining with those who reject the way of hatred and death, whatever our other differences with them, as imperfect leaders of an imperfect humanity which is still the best hope for a flourishing and verdant planet and as the cutting edge of wisdom and compassion in this beautiful and mysterious cosmos.

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Pandemic Reflections: Civilizational Transitions and Political Strategy

Capital, like all gods, believes itself to be immaterial, a purely formal, autonomous intelligence operating in accord with inexorable laws which which always and everywhere maximize accumulation, which terminates in a point at which it becomes infinitely productive and utterly independent of either material input or the need to realize surplus through the consumption of use values: that is as nearly divine as it is possible to conceive under a univocal metaphysics. 

The laws which drive the accumulation of Capital are real. Their impact is evident in the neoliberal reconstruction of the “world” since 1978. But Capital’s claim to be immaterial and the relationships which govern it to be purely formal are just lies, the product of a profound delusion regrind the nature of reality. The materiality of Capital, and thus its contingent, conditioned nature, should already have been apparent as Capital pushed the planet ever closer to an ecological tipping point which threatens human civilization, long before it was prepared to replace humanity entirely with an army of robot thralls (which it would need in the first place only because, being material, even Capital depends on the dissipation of energy to create organization). The materiality of Capital should already have been apparent given the reality of underconsumption crises, which demonstrate that what workers actually produce are qualitatively distinct use-values, which must be sold and purchased in order for surplus to be realized as profit and accumulated as Capital. The materiality of Capital should already have been apparent because an immaterial Capital could not have had its logic disrupted by by a century of revolutionary insurrection and popular war and of an interimperialist world war set in motion by the residual territoriality which Capital can not shed, a territoriality which is now reasserting itself with rise of ethnonationalist strongmen imposing protectionist trade regimes which disrupt supply chains carefully globalized and rationalized over decades.

But the COVID-19 pandemic has brought the materiality and the material vulnerability of Capital to light in a fundamentally new way. The virus disrupts Capital from the outside in ways that everyone on the planet has already experienced in inescapable ways, calling into question the inexorability of Capital’s power and opening up a portal to alternative futures. 

This said, not all those futures are good. Capital, like all forms of organization, adapts to its changing environment, and we have already seen that many of those adaptations are quite vicious. And many of the futures envisioned by the progressive bloc —especially those which depend on continued progress along a broadly industrial and (alter)globalist trajectory— are also being called into question. 

In what follows I will lay out some of the principal ways in which the pandemic alters the current situation and reshapes our strategic, operational, and tactical imperatives. I will begin by looking at the likely ecological, epidemiological, and demographic outcomes, then proceed to the impact on technological change and the global economy. I will then turn to the way in which various political and cultural actors have responded to the pandemic and how it will affect their strategic position. This leads, in turn, to an extended reflection on civilizational transitions and what a revised theory of transitions, together with our emerging understanding of the specificity of the current situation means for humanity at the strategic, operational, and tactical levels.

The Impact of and Response to the Pandemic

It is by no means certain how profound a demographic impact the pandemic will have. As of 14 May 2020, there have been 4.31 million cases of COVID, with no real sign of a flattening of the curve, and the average global case mortality rate is 6.88% (Rosen  et al 2020a, b). But we have no idea either how widely the virus will spread or how it will affect regions with a less developed health system than early hotspots. Some parts of the world, such as parts of Africa, have thus far seen very few infections and almost no deaths. But we really don’t know whether or not it is just a matter of time before essentially everyone contracts the disease, and that Africa and other parts of the Third World have been spared thus far largely because they are less integrated into the global economy, so that the virus is taking longer to arrive and spread, or if effective mitigation efforts, a possible vaccine, and effective treatments will more or less halt the spread long before we reach this point. The Spanish Influenza eventually infected 1/3 of the population worldwide and if COVID eventually matches this and the average case mortality rate holds, we are looking at roughly 179 million dead, or a total death rate of roughly 2.3% and if every one eventually became infected we would be looking at up to 537 million or nearly 7% of the world’s population dead. This is not on the scale of the Black Death in Europe in the fourteenth century or the Smallpox pandemic in the Americas after the European conquest. But it is larger than the population of most countries on the planet and enough to have will have a profound economic, political and cultural impact.  

Even if the curve does flatten and the demographic impact turns out to be very limited, we know that climate change and globalization will make the emergence of new pathogens and the re-emergence of ancient ones increasingly likely. With COVID-19 we already have a pathogen to which human beings have no existing immunity. It may be simply a matter of time before an even more deadly  pathogen emerges to which we also have no real immunity with a significant impact on human population levels. This is in addition to downward pressure on population from famines, floods, storms, and water shortages secondary to climate change. 

We can, however, begin to assess the human response to the pandemic, across the technological, economic, political, and cultural spheres.  First, the pandemic will likely spur further investment in the information technology and biotechnology sectors.  Investment in information technology will be directed to reducing the dependence of Capital on physically present live human labor power, accelerating the move towards both the virtualization of the workplace and the automation of production —including the automation of services, precisely because Capital wants to be able to survive the next pandemic with less disruption to production.  While some of these technologies may be deployed in environmentally or worker friendly ways, especially in the more advanced sectors of the global economy, such as the use of virtualization technology to reduce the need for travel and commuting, we should be aware that they will also accelerate the tendency towards the obsolescence of human labor power. Investment in biotechnology will, predictably, be focused initially on ways to cope with new and resurgent pathogens, especially those resistant to existing strategies of containment and treatment such as vaccination and antibiotics and antivirals. But we do need to be aware that this same research can also be used to support the weaponization of pathogens and the defeat of countermeasures. Whether or not the shift of Capital to the biotechnology sector, which in the United States, at least, has historically stood to the right of other sectors of high technology Capital, will be sufficient to alter the balance of power within the bourgeoisie is not clear. 

Second, the pandemic will have a range of complex and contradictory economic implications. It  will tend to further the project of deglobalization (Heokman 2015, Bordo 2017, Irwin 2020) initiated by the ethnonationalist right and especially by the shift in US trade policy towards protectionism. The disruption of supply chains will force a relocalization of at least some production and, in general, a decline in the global trade in food and manufactured goods, though not necessarily in services or in Capital. At the same time, the virtualization of work will continue to favor those with a high degree of connectivity and strong technological and intercultural communication and interaction skills, further marginalizing and radicalizing the “left behind” base of the ethnonationalist right. This may also intensify contradictions within the progressive bloc between relatively privileged petty bourgeois elements who can take advantage of the combination of remote work and the localization of certain forms of luxury production (locally grown and “artisanly” processed food, for example) to improve, if not their economic position, then at least their quality of life, while marginalized workers who are overwhelmingly find themselves concentrated in the in-person services sector find that the “new normal” makes their already difficult lives nearly impossible. 

What has been most remarkable, however, has been the political and ideological response to the pandemic. On the one hand, the pandemic has already created calls for a strengthened social safety net in the US and for strong supplementary stimulus and social support measures in places such as Europe which already have a strong safety net (Tharor 2020). Unlike the crisis of 2008, in which the Obama administration called for a global stimulus effort only to find Europe still committed to neoliberal austerity, European countries are now responding much more strongly with support measures for their own populations, though they are still resisting calls for income transfers and aid for the European South. More broadly, there have been significant calls to take advantage of the “pause” required by the pandemic to build on advances in reducing carbon emissions, restoring work/life balance, and even pulling back from unsustainable consumption levels. Utopian socialists whose strategy is centered on building intentional communities which develop new ways of relating to the ecosystem, new hortic technologies, and new economies of sharing have been strengthened politically by the pandemic and are leveraging it to build financial and political political support.

These political developments are fed by what can only be called a spontaneous mass resistance to the Protestant Ethic and alienated labor. As people have been forced to work from home, they have discovered just how much of what they do at the office is actually unnecessary, and are beginning to question the extent to which their lives and identities have become defined by what can only be described as alienated labor (Marx 1844/1993). Even those who, feeling obliged to try to replicate at home a bizarrely and unnecessarily regimented school environment —and not surprisingly burned out as a result— cannot help but realize how wrong it feels that teaching their children should be experienced as a burden rather than as an opportunity to share in one of the greatest joys human life has to offer. And those who have been more relaxed with their children and who have seen how much more quickly their children grow cannot but ask for what sort of dystopian hell our schools have been preparing them. 

These reactions are not confined to the Left and resistance to the Protestant Ethic and alienated labor has long helped fuel the survivalist libertarian right, the Benedict Option (Dreher 2017) embraced by many traditionalist and green conservatives, and the communitarian center represented by thinkers such as Amitai Etzioni, Robert Bellah, Michael Walzer, Alisdair McIntyre and much of of the Radical Orthodoxy movement (McIntyre 1981, Walzer 1983, Bellah 1985, Millbank 1990, Etzioni 1996) as well as the libertarian socialist, anarchoprimitivist, indigenist, ecofeminist, and “Pirate” Left (Huetlin 2016). 

One possible outcome of the strengthening of these tendencies is a shift in the way in which the Left understands and defines itself. Currently, the favored term for the broad Left is “progressive,” a term bound up, if not explicitly with the Protestant Ethic and industrialism, then at least with the idea that the principal aim of human is the creation of an increasingly complex civilization, as well as with the idea that measured against this moral standard, there really is progress. The experience of the pandemic and the strengthening of the currents noted above which, if they do not explicitly reject the concept of progress (and some do) at least relativize it and aim to situate it in a broader spiritual context. As a result, if it hopes to leverage the rise of these tendencies, the broad Left may need to call itself not “progressive” but rather biophilic and humanistic. 

The question, however, is the effective political weight of either the social liberal/social democratic or the libertarian socialist/decentralist response to the pandemic. The fact is that actually acting on an interest in decentralist alternatives is very difficult. It requires significant resources at at least the petty bourgeoise level as well as a willingness to sink those resources into highly speculative survivalist or communitarian investments. Most of the people who have been doing this successfully without being independently wealthy already have family members who continue to be employed within the formal market economy. It is, furthermore, one thing to hedge one’s investments —social and psychological as well as financial—  in the existing system with off grid investments in everything from homesteading through community gardening to deschooling and urban cooperatives. It is quite another to divest not only financially but also socially and psychologically from the dominant system. Too much not only of our retirement savings but also our self-esteem are invested in the dominant system for most to make a decisive break. 

Furthermore, with  a few exceptions (the Zapatistas and what is left of the democratic confederalist movement in Rojava), most decentralists pay no real attention to power realities. This is true not only of libertarian socialists and indigenists on the left who imagine that they will be allowed to build a new world in the ruins of the old without effective resistance from Capital, but also libertarian survivalists on the Right who imagine that their home arsenals, ridiculously large from the vantage point of the needs of hunting or home protection, will amount to anything against the military apparatus which Capital has at its disposal. And even Rojava has not fared well, as the US abandoned its alliance with the the Democratic Union Party (PYD) and allowed Turkey, Syria, and Russia to invade and occupy much of the region Ocalan 2017, Allsopp 2019). 

This does not mean that decentralist alternatives should not form part of the strategic portfolio of the Left in the coming period. On the contrary, with the proviso that they are not narrowly limited to rural, back to the land initiatives but also include ecologically sustainable, decentralized urban economies as well, decentralist initiatives will play a very large, and in the event of a transition by collapse or decadence, a preponderant role in creating our future. What is needed is, precisely, a retheorization of political strategy in the light of the growing likelihood of such a transition. 

Finally, we should note that there should be a very strong neoliberal/globalist response to the pandemic centered in the more advanced sectors of capital (finance, information, technology) and driven by a more or less fully technocratic secular vision of humanity’s future. The pandemic has documented the obvious inadequacy of nation state structures and existing international organizations. But thus far we have not seen such a response, and even within stronger transnational structures such as the EU international cooperation has not strengthened but declined as governments have moved not only to protect but to politically pacify their own populations. This mirrors the very weak neoliberal/globalist response to the rise of ethnonationalism since 2016. Far from eliciting a swift and decisive “deep state” and or globalist response, the election of Trump, Brexit, and other ethnonationalist victories have been met with resistance which is feeble and amateur at best. 

There are (at least) two possible explanations for this, and they are not mutually exclusive. First, it may that the adversary is unlike any that the principal instruments of the neoliberal/globalist elite (especially the intelligence community and law enforcement) have ever met in the past, and that they are unprepared to combat it.  What we have witnessed in the US and to a lesser extent in the UK since 2015 is not simply an electoral fluke assisted by opportunistic state and nonstate actors, but the seizure of power by agents of a foreign organized crime/intelligence state (Russia) (Olear 2020.04.21). The United States Intelligence Community, largely to safeguard us from the danger that it might become hegemonic, operates in a compartmentalized fashion, with not only different agencies but different intelligence and law enforcement disciplines responsible for different sorts of actors. As Eric Garland (Garland 2020.04.21) has argued, this enders them incapable of responding effectively and protecting the liberal order from what may be an even greater threat than historic fascism. 

This threat is, furthermore, deeply rooted in the Russian geopolitical situation. Richly endowed with mineral resources, but situated too far north to make food self-sufficiency ever secure, lacking the sort of river network enjoyed by Europe and North America to facilitate movement of resources and products, and open to invasion across the broad, flat Northeast Eurasian plain and also from China, Russia’s situation inclines it toward development as an extractive resource exporter (something which always favors the Right) and renders it permanently insecure militarily. While certain Russian leaders have attempted more progressive economic development and geopolitical strategies (indeed the whole Soviet experience can be seen as a failed attempt to do just that, centered on development of its scientific and cultural apparatus), the principal legacy of these attempts has been a massive nuclear arsenal with very limited strategic value and a comparative advantage in training intelligence operatives. The default setting for any Russian leader is going to be to attempt to destabilize adversaries. 

This is a strategic aim that Putin has embraced with a vengeance, informed by the Gerrasimov Doctrine, which argues for an integrated a approach to warfare in which economic, political-diplomatic, and information operations together with asymmetrical warfare are no longer regarded as supplemental, but rather as the principal instruments of foreign policy. Mark Galleotti (Galleotti 2018a, 2018b), who created the term, argue that the Gerasimov Doctrine is more a spontaneous political formation than an official doctrine. But if this is true it is rooted in the merger of Russian organized crime, the Russian intelligence apparatus, and the Russian state we noted above, which has embraced it as its operational and tactical doctrine.

Whether or not Putin and the organized crime/intelligence state (which are, at least in principle, distinct) have moved beyond simply destabilizing adversaries and undermining the liberal order, or have embraced a more ambitious aim, such as creating a global neofascist/national conservative bloc remains unclear, and is likely undecided. But either way the threat is extremely powerful.

This is the principal reason why the neoliberal/globalist response to Trump generally and to his exploitation of the pandemic has been so feeble. This said, there may well be darker forces at work. We know the while nearly all of the information sector and most of the higher technology sectors of the bourgeoisie, together with roughly half of financial capital, tend to support the progressive bloc, this orientation is by no means universal. There have long been elements in the information technology sector which have been drawn towards libertarianism and many of these —Peter Thiel is the most important example— have migrated from there to the right, into the territory of the Dark Enlightenment.  It  is also possible that some elements in the neoliberal/globalist elite believe that the enthnonationalist interregnum and even the pandemic may be useful to them in the long run. This could be true in two senses. First, the experience of four years of rule by global criminals and neofascists ending in mass deaths could well make the people generally, and the progressive bloc in particular more amenable to the technocratic and meritocratic form of governance that even the progressive sectors of the bourgeoisie clearly prefer. Second, the pandemic has required the Left to support restrictions on mobility and assembly and augmented surveillance as necessary and in service to the common good. But these restriction also limit severely the ability to organize effectively. It is, indeed, increasingly difficulty to imagine what organizing will look like in the post pandemic world, something which strengthens the position of Capital and weakens further any potential challenge.

This brings us to the response to the pandemic on the Right. The Right is clearly alarmed by calls for a strengthened social safety net and int he United States at least fought off calls for even a temporary Universal Basic Income. Since then it has been doubling down on its insistence that without the threat of starvation people simply won’t work and has begun arguing that those who are old, disabled, or unproductive should be denied care where there are shortages as a result of the pandemic. These positions are being staked out by formerly mainstream conservatives is represent a major step forward in Capital’s embrace of an anihilationist agenda, i.e. a program of gradually eliminating the planet’s surplus (i.e. unproductive or insufficiently product) population. 

We have, furthermore, seen the Right leverage the pandemic to strengthen its anti-immigrant, xenophobic agenda, attempting to blame the pandemic on China and encouraging attacks on immigrants and ethnic minorities everywhere. 

Finally, the Reopen America movement has taken an aggressive, often armed form which is giving the paramilitary right an opportunity to engage in what amount to war games and active training exercises in preparation for what it hopes will be a neofascist coup.  When people of color stage comparable protests they are simply shot down. Neofascists are, in many states, not arrested or even dispersed. 

Pandemic Transitions

Given this analysis, what is the larger meaning of the pandemic and what are the implications of this situation for our understanding of the next steps in the human civilizational project? The pandemic is, fundamentally, a manifestation of profound changes in the ecosystem which have been brought about by human activity. When we talk about anthropogenic ecological change it is usually assumed that we are talking about climate change. But while it is expected that climate change, by melting the permafrost and releasing pathogens trapped in the soil, will lead to widespread pandemics in the future, COVID-19 is likely the result of a dynamic which have been underway for for at leas the past 5000 years, and perhaps longer: the growing interconnectedness of the planet as a result of trade and migration. This nonetheless situates the pandemic in the context of the same general phenomenon as anthropogenic climate change —the tension, if not, perhaps, an outright contradiction, between the human civilizational project and the larger ecosystem on which it depends.  This in turn raises questions about the historical materialist understanding of the transition as originally formulated in the Communist Manifesto (Marx and Engels 1848/1993) and the Introduction to the Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy (Marx 1859/1993)

According to historical materialism human civilizational progress is driven fundamentally by scientific and technological innovation leading to economic contradictions and ultimately to class struggle and social revolution. New technological developments render old ways of organizing society obsolete, generating economic crises and other contradictions and ultimately mass, revolutionary movements which reorganize the society, once again unleashing the development of the productive forces. Later developments in historical materialism (Lenin 1902/1971, Gramsci 1949) suggested that by seizing state power and/or achieving cultural hegemony the working classes, acting through the Communist Party could accelerate this process. But the assumption remained that technological progress and the growing interconnectedness of the planet which it made possible were unambiguously supportive of, and in fact a precondition, for human liberation and development. And it takes for granted that any transition towards communism will take the form of reform (in the case of social democracy) or revolution (in the case of communism).  

A systematic inventory of major civilizational transitions suggests a rather different and much more complex pattern. Let us consider each transition in turn. The emergence of humanity itself was largely the result of biological evolution and technological innovation resulting in the development of language, which enhanced hominid cooperative capacities and allowed the development of stone tools. The causes of the Neolithic Revolution remain disputed (Childe 1936, Wright 1972, Harlan 1992, Schmidt 2000, Diamond 2002, Curry 2008a,b) but a number of different factors were likely involved, including:

  • nonanthropogenic ecological changes leading to either a dryer or a more stable climate, 
  • ecological changes which may have been either nonanthropogenic (or anthropogenic  (overhunting leading to extinction of the megafauna),
  • the development of new relationships between human beings and other organisms through neotenization, and 
  • the creation of ritual centers such as that at Gobelki Tepe which intensified social interactions and thus catalyzed the emergence of permanent settlements or feasting behaviors generally. 

It has even been suggested that a reluctance to leave behind the elderly and disabled  on the part of an increasingly social humanity was a critical factor in catalyzing the transition to settled life, which in many ways involved a number of sacrifices. It is reasonably well established that horticulture developed independently in at least 10 different geographical locations, and then spread by migration, imitation, and competition. 

The third great transition in the history of humanity, the Urban Revolution, was also the result of technological innovations, and specifically of the development of metal (bronze) technology, which opened up conquest and exploitation as an economic development strategy, and the invention of the plow and of irrigation, which allowed the cultivation of land which was not previously arable (Childe 1936). These innovations led to new economic structures, what we call the tributary mode of production in which warlords exact rents, taxes, and forced labor from dependent peasant communities, and a new civilizational ideal, sacral monarchy, which ordered the entire of human society towards the deification of the king by means of conquest and of sacrificial rituals adapted from the pastoral societies which in many cases emerged as the new conquerors (Amin 1978/1980). This said, there may also have been an alternative pathway, which we call archaic, where urbanization was driven by religious monumentalization and the voluntary contribution of surplus in exchange for specialist knowledge (such as the ability to create calendars to regulate the agricultural cycle), coordination and planning, and teaching and ritual leadership. This is pattern which is suggested by megalithic sites such as Stonehenge in England and by sites such as Chaco and Cahokia in the Americas. 

The fourth great transition —the Late Bronze Age Collapse (Cline 2014) and the Axial Age Transformations (Jaspers 1953, Mansueto 2016) which followed shortly thereafter— illustrates extraordinarily well the way in which diverse factors interact in a complex way to lead to the emergence of fundamentally new ways of being human. The Late Bronze Age Collapse was a generalized collapse of urban civilization and especially of sacral monarchic organization across the entire Eastern Mediterranean during the period between 1200 and 1100 BCE. An earlier period of decline and deurbanization affected the Indus Valley civilization between 1900 and 1700 BCE, with the population dispersing and moving into smaller settlements further east through the beginning of the Iron Age in India around 1300 BCE. The period also marks the Zhou Revolution in China around 1046 BCE. The Axial Age transformations were the period of religious problematization, rationalization, and democratization which led to the emergence of Judaism, Hellenism, Buddhism, Hinduism, Jainism, Zoroastrianism, Confucianism, Taoism, Legalism, and Mohism, all in the years between 800-200 BCE and very largely in the middle centuries of this period. This same period also witnessed the development of specialized agriculture (wine, oil, spices, fibers, tea), the coincident emergence of petty commodity production (economies centered on production of luxury goods for trade) and a second wave of urbanization. 

There are a number of factors attested for the Late Bronze Age collapse (Tainter 1976, Dickenson 2007, Cline 2014 including radical cooling due to volcanic eruptions, serious droughts,  a major pandemic, which apparently resembled influenza, centered in Central, Western, and South Asia (Mouritz 1921), the emergence of iron technology and the development of massed infantry (. The development of iron technology made it possible to terrance and cultivate hillsides which were impenetrable to the horses and chariots on which most states of the period relied, making possible the emergence of “liberated zones” in places such as the hill country of Judea and Samaria (Gottwald 1979). But it also led to the emergence of heavy armored infantry, which reopened these areas to conquest and exploitation but groups such as the Philistines and the other Sea Peoples. And it altered the previous balance of power between the large landed aristocracy, which alone had the resources to support mounted warriors, and the urban middle strata, who were often able to outfit themselves as heavy infantry (Anderson 1974, de Ste Croix 1982). This, in turn, made possible urban insurrections such as those which affected many cities in Greece, and later in Rome, and which led to radical land reform and democratization.  The  emergence of the Zhou dynasty in China seems to have been catalyzed by a revolt against the Shang, who practiced human sacrifice. The wave of urbanization which took place in the Indo-Gangetic plain and the Himalayan foothills during this same “Later Vedic” period, however, seems to reflect an eastward movement of refugees from the increasingly arid conditions of the Indus Valley, probably including both the earlier Dravidian and later Indo-Aryan peoples, who then form a network of chiefdoms (primarily in the Indo-Gangetic Plain) and oligarchic republics (ganapadas) (primarily in the Himalayan foothills. 

In all these cases, however, the direction of future social development was significantly shaped by the emergence of specialized agriculture and crafts production, (wine and oil, pottery and wool cloth in the Mediterranean, spices in India, and tea and eventually porcelain in China) which in turn led to the emergence of petty commodity production, and by the closely related Axial Age Transformations. Production for trade contributed to weakening the warlord class and strengthening new urban, mercantile elites and those landowners involved in newer forms of agriculture, something which reinforced the changes due to the emergence of iron production and of heavy infantry, leading to democratization. Petty commodity production also produced a world of quantitative relationships which led to the emergence of an abstract mathematics and eventually of philosophy, which used concepts and arguments as well as images and stories to engage questions of meaning and value. And petty commodity production brought peoples into contact with each other and with differing pantheons and mythic cycles, and required a new set of mercantile skills, both of which called the old myths into question, problematizing questions of meaning and value. 

We can already see in this context the emergence of a well defined pattern governing social change. Human societies grow up on a definite material base, but contrary to Marx, who saw this material base as defined largely by technology (the forces of production), it is, in fact, defined first and foremost by the physical and biological environment. What kind of terrain is available and what resources it contains, the nature of the climate and what kinds of ecosystems and biomes it supports plays an enormous role in shaping the course of human history. And as we will see, while technological progress alters which environmental factors are most important, it does not diminish their significance. We should also note that the first major recorded pandemic occurs at the roughly the time of the Late Bronze Age Collapse, suggesting that civilizational progress, by intensifying the exploitation of the ecosystem, raising human population densities, and increasing the interconnectedness of the planet creates the conditions for such pandemics, which are also significant part of the material conditions of human civilization. 

But human societies also seek definite ends and because we are rational we understand that behind the immediate aim of survival and reproduction is the aim of Being as such. Different material conditions give rise to diverse structures (technological, economic, political, and cultural) by means of which we pursue this end, and these in turn shape, but are also shaped by, the way in which the end of Being as such is understood: what we call the “civilizational ideal.”

Up until this point we have mentioned only one pandemic. It may be that up until the Axial Age population density and trade were not sufficient for these to become a major factor. Or it may be that we simply lack historical records. But beginning in this period pandemics become one of the major drivers of social change. Consider the list of pandemics which accompanied and followed the development of the Silk Road trade networks:

Date Common Name Geospatial Reach Likely Pathogens Death Toll Sociohistorical Impact
429-426 BCE Plague of Athens Greece, Libya, Egypt, Ethiopia Typhoid, Typhus, or a Viral Hemmoragic Fever 75-100K Weakened Athens in struggle with Sparta, hastened end of polis based, quasi democratic phase of Hellenism
412 BCE ? Northern Greece, Roman Republic Influenza ? ?
165-180 CE Antonine Plague Roman Empire, Eastern Han Smallpox? 5-10M Undercut trade between Rome, India, China; depopulated parts of Italy and the rest of Europe, weakened Empires eastern defenses 
250-266 CE Plague of Cyprian Roman Empire Smallpox or Ebola? 1 M Set off Decian persecution as Christians, suspected of being responsible, were required to take an oath to the Emperor
541-542 CE, recurring periodically until 8th Century Plague of Justinian Europe and West Asia Plague (Yersinia pestis) 25-100 M, 40-50% of the population of Europe Undercuts Justinian’s effort to restore Roman Empire, strengthens Goths, sets stage for advent and triumph of Islam
1331-1353 CE, recurring periodically unto 1860  Black Death Europe, Asia, North Africa Plague (Yersinia pestis) 75-200 M, 10-60% of European population. Decline in population creates labor shortage, leading peasant revolts which end feudalism in some areas, result in enclosures and shift to sheep raising in others. 

It should be noted that this was is an abbreviated list and that the “recurrences” noted for pandemics of Yersenia pestis, in particular, while not as severe as the original outbreaks, sometimes had death tolls into the tens of millions. 

The development of human civilization, in other words, and especially the increasing density of the human population growing interconnectedness of the planet’s principal civilizational centers, created a fundamentally new challenge: pandemics which did not merely stress existing social structures, but which periodically annihilated a significant part of the population of the planet, and in some cases more than half of the population of a particular region (Diamond 1997). 

This should not lead us to simply displace other theories of social change with a “plague” thesis, but it does suggest an important refinement to the “standard model” which, in both its technocratic and humanistic, capitalist and socialist variants tends to put scientific, technological and economic progress, and/or conscious political activity and ideological innovation at the forefront. Climate change, resource depletion, and disease —underlying material factors at least partly outside human control— do not diminish but rather increase their importance as human civilization develops. 

This pattern continues with the advent of capitalism. Capitalist development depends on two principal factors: mass proletarianization, which forces the vast majority to sell their labor power in order to survive, and the primitive accumulation of Capital, which allows the emerging bourgeoisie to purchase labor power in order to set tools and raw materials into motion. On both accounts, pandemics played a major role. The Black Death of 1331-1353, by killing off a large part of the peasantry, created a labor shortage which initially strengthened the hand of the working classes, setting off a series of peasant revolts across Europe. In some areas —England, the Low Countries, and parts of Northern Italy— the peasantry won these battles, effectively ending feudalism. But in England the landed elites, especially the gentry (the lower part of the aristocracy which in England included the younger sons of peers, those with hereditary titles, as well as the untitled nobility of knights, esquires, and “gentlemen,” found a way to fight back, enclosing commons which the peasants had formerly used for forage and hunting and eventually forcing the peasants off the land entirely, which was converted from labor intensive grain cultivation to sheep raising. This pushed the peasants into the cities, where strict laws against almsgiving forced them to seek work in the textile mills, which the gentry now provided with the necessary raw material: wool. Elsewhere, in most of Southern and Eastern Europe, the peasants lost and the regions in question were subjected to a “seigneurial reaction,” which made them economic backwaters, exporting grain to more advanced regions or, where the landed elites were more economical, mobilized dependent peasants for labor intensive forms of commercial agriculture —e.g. the development of advanced viniculture in France and parts of Italy. Only in Northern Italy and the Low Countries did the peasant victories stick, leading to the relatively mild “Renaissance” form of early modernity, a form which, however, precisely because it less effectively exploited the working classes, ended up being an economic and thus political dead end (Anderson 1974). 

On the side of primitive accumulation, of course, disease played a constitutive and possibly determinative role. It was, above all, the vulnerability of the indigenous populations of the Americas to smallpox and other diseases brought by Europeans that made the European Conquest of the Americas so easy. Smallpox wiped out 5-8 million people in Mexico in 1520, roughly 40% of the population. Salmonella to another 5-15 million, roughly 80% of the population between 1545 and 1548 and 2-2.5 million in 1576-1580, another 50% of the population. Another series of plagues, including leptospirosis and smallpox wiped out 30-90% of the population of Southern New England between 1616-1620. And so it continued. European accounts of the conquest of the Americas, even when they recognize that these continents were far from “empty,” tend to emphasize European technological and thus military superiority. But much of the heavy lifting was apparently done by viruses and bacteria, which, as Europeans became aware of their impact were, furthermore, employed as biological weapons (Nunn 2010, Zinn 1995). 

It has been our assumption that, even if new pathogens emerge or old ones reappear as the climate changes, the population becomes increasingly more dense, and the planet ever more interconnected, that our superior medical technology will provide a ready fix which will prevent any of these pathogens from constituting a threat to the current world order. Serious epidemiologists have been warning that this is not the case for some time. But our experience with COVID has brought their warnings home. First, it has shown that a pathogen with a long incubation period can spread far and wide, infecting possibly the majority of the planet, long before symptoms become visible, much less vaccines and treatments available. Second, it is not entirely clear that antibodies to COVID-19 actually prevent infection and death, making the development of a vaccine more problematic. Many pathogens, in fact, do not lead to the production of protective antibodies. And many viruses, in particular remain impossible to treat. While the mortality rate of COVID-19 is probably low enough (< 5%?) that it is unlikely to have an impact on the population level comparable to that of the Plague of Justinian, the Black Death, or the Columbian Exchange, even 2-5%, coupled with the technological, economic, and political impacts we cited above, would contribute significantly to shaking the current world order. Imagine a pathogen as contagious as measles, with the incubation period of COVID, and the lethality of rabies or Ebola … (Ebert and Bull 2003).

There is, furthermore, the danger that pathogens will be weaponized. Much of the current thinking around this  centers on the pathogens intentionally engineered in order to wipe out targeted populations, either by hostile state actors or by terrorist groups. And both scenarios are, of course, possible. But we are in the process of witnessing a comparable and only slightly more subtle weaponization of COVID-19 which has nothing to do with its origin. Specifically, the Right has unleashed a vigorous campaign in support of the idea that economic growth is more important than human life and that people who are not “productive,” i.e. who cannot be instrumentalized by Capital should be allowed to die. This may well lead to hasty “reopenings” of the economy which contribute to the annihilation of a significant part of the “surplus,” “unproductive” population, but even if it does not, it advances the annihilationist agenda which defines the Dark Enlightenment, and weakens humanity in future struggles. 

None of this means, of course, that it is inevitable that half our population will be wiped out by this or later pandemics, or even that civilizational collapse or decadence are inevitable. But it does mean that stresses at the level of the material base (climate change, pollution, resource depletion, pandemics, etc.)  which could easily lead to collapse or decadence are possible or even likely. And there is good evidence that such events will be mobilized by oppressive anticivilizational and antihuman forces. 

What does this say at the level of global theory about the process of civilizational transitions? At the most general level, it suggests more attention to material factors not only as the basis for and as constraints on human civilizational progress, but also as a catalyst for decadence or collapse. This does not mean, however, structural and teleological factors —-ways of producing, of organizing resources for production, of building and exercising power, and of organizing our experience of the world on the one hand, and the spiritual and civilizational ideals, the ways of being we pursue, on the other hand, are simply overridden when ecological catastrophe, anthropogenic or not, strikes. There are, to be sure, catastrophes which overwhelm the human capacity for response, such as the pandemics introduced by the Europeans into the Americas. But how we respond matters. Specifically, without negating the idea of “progress” entirely we need to understand it in a far more nuanced way and recognize that some pathways of development are unsustainable and others may be closed off by contingent material factors beyond our control. Scientific, technological, and economic progress shape our environment, but in ultimately relatively minor ways. They do not bring it under human control. Exploration, expansion, and increasingly intensive cultivation of the latent potential of our ecosystems (including the humans that inhabit them) are goods, but they are relative and not absolute goods both in the sense that every way of producing, every way of organizing resources for production, every way of building and exercising power, every way of organizing our experience of the world —and ultimately every way of being— is marked by internal contradictions and by contradictions with the material basis of being and of its structural forms. Because of this, nothing is permanent except the desire for Being as such. And since impermanence is a fundamental feature of reality, it must be factored into the way we understand both our spiritual and civilizational ideals and the structures and strategies by means of which we pursue them. The more flexible we are not just with respect to means, but also with respect to ends, the more likely we are survive and grow and develop, even if it is along very different pathways than we previously envisioned. 

This said, our analysis suggests a well defined dominating contradiction which defines 

the current situation. This is the contradiction between the natural ordering of matter to Being and a spiritual and civilizational ideal with its associated structural instrumentalities which attempts to negate matter and its real process of development, and thus threatens not just the process of human growth and development but the growth and development of material beings in general.  Specifically, matter tends to increasing degrees of complexity and organization, but it gets there by expending and dissipating energy. Every material system therefore requires a continuous input of energy in order to simply maintain itself before it can grow and become more complex or contribute to the growth and development of something larger and more complex than itself. 

The technocratic secular ideal, which derives directly from Reformed Christianity as analyzed by Weber (Weber 1920/1968) in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism aims at transcending finitude by means of scientific, technological and economic progress (Mansueto 2010, 2016). More specifically it aims at constructing the Calvinist God who produces without consuming and imposes this aim on humanity, as the —literal— apotheosis of the very ordinary and mundane standard of efficiency. The various structures which have developed to realize this ideal illustrate the dynamic. Industrial technology and capitalist development (including, with some mitigation but also with distinctive additional contradictions, historic state socialism) breaks down existing forms of organization by means of combustion, proletarianization, and the technical division of labor  in order to release energy and do work. In the process it not only pollutes the planet, depletes resources, and leads to anthropogenic warming which threatens the habitability of the planet but deprives human beings of the nurturing social fabric and creative capacities which we need for our growth and development —in fact to be of any real use at all, even to Capital.  And to the extent that it realizes its aim of infinite efficiency, it drives the need for human labor power, and thus the value of human labor power, to zero, impoverishing and ultimately starving humanity. The emergence of Capital as an autonomous intelligence increasingly renders even the bourgeoisie powerless and the bourgeois state impotent,  while the hegemony of the Protestant Ethic in its secular form leaves everyone feeling utterly worthless, sinners in the hands of the one and only angry God: Capital. 

We are, furthermore, at a very specific point in the unfolding of this complex of contradictions. Our planet is as the tipping point both in terms of anthropogenic climate change and in terms of what will likely be a series of increasingly devastating pandemics. While Capital is still very far from having rendered all human labor obsolete, it is at the point where ever larger segments of the population are insufficiently productive to warrant employment and thus constitute surplus population. While the liberal bourgeoisie struggles feebly to put into place reforms such as a Universal Basic Income, and where they do not already exist universal free or affordable housing, health care, public transportation, and education, the Right, acting on behalf of Capital itself and of the more backward sectors of the bourgeoisie (the extractive, agricultural, and lower technology industrial sectors of capital as well as part of financial capital) is putting into place the first tentative pieces of its strategy for annihilation and doubling down ideologically on the claim, central to the Protestant Ethic, that in order to merit existence, we must produce surplus for Capital. 

Capital, like all of the asura, is ultimately foolish, and can never succeed, as its ideal is impossible. But it can destroy entire civilizations, entire species, and even entire planets in the process.

Strategic Directions

What does political strategy looks like once we leave behind the assumption of linear progress along a single trajectory towards a given end, with all future transitions by means of reform or revolution? Here three points are in order. First, the aspiration of secular revolutionary strategy to organize and direct the whole course of human history —an aspiration which is constitutive of the communist variant of the humanistic ideal of creating a political subject which can make humanity the master of its own destiny and thus effectively divine— is impossible. It is, in fact, utterly in contradiction with anything like a dialectical or historical materialism and thus with its own theoretical foundations. Indeed, it would not be too much to say —not surprisingly for an aspiration that developed under capitalism— that it is deformed by the same aspiration to escape materiality which afflicts Capital. Human history, and the larger cosmohistorical process of which it is a part, while not random or unintelligible (everything has a cause, and all causes are in principle intelligible) is a material system, and matter, while it makes complex organization possible, also constrains possibilities.  Human history is also a complex system, in which events and actions have consequences which, while they obey certain laws which are, once again, in principle intelligible, can be utterly unpredictable, and even when they are predictable are so distant from the current state of the system as to render meaningful control impossible. Second, because of this, strategic thinking must operate over a much larger time-frame, making very long term investments which, even if they seem highly speculative at the time, will eventually pay off because they invest in the most deeply rooted tendencies of matter —-to seek Being— and of human nature —to seek meaning, to create, and to form deep, enduring, an nurturing bonds with others. Third, our strategic portfolio must be extremely —even infinitely— diversified. With the single qualification that they help realize matter’s yearning for Being, and more specifically the human search for meaning, creativity, and relationality, we must be open to all trajectories of development.  We must remain open to all four modalities of transition: reform, revolution, decadence, and collapse. And we must be adept —we must excel even— in all methods of struggle.  

This said, our analysis of the current situation suggests certain key tasks which we must undertake if we are to avoid fascism and transcend capitalism. Precisely because the pandemic has demonstrated the intensity of the contradictions between Capital on the one hand  and the requirements of complex organization, life, and sapience (and thus of humanity) on the other, strengthening rather than weakening calls for a Universal Basic Income, for example and turning the planet’s longest (indeed suspiciously long) capitalist expansion into the deepest economic crisis since at least the Great Depression in a matter of a few months, the Right has intensified its efforts to destroy the liberal order and such democratic institutions as exist, intensifying its propaganda on behalf of the Protestant Ethic and moving forward even more rapidly on its agenda of containing, demobilizing, demoralizing, and ultimately annihilating the planet’s surplus population. 

In this struggle we need to adopt a classical popular front strategy enriched by a struggle for cultural hegemony. At the center of the popular front strategy should be electoral struggle to deprive the Right of the control of state institutions. The long term damage being done by the leaders of the Right, including Putin, Trump, Modi, and Erdogan is sufficient to prioritize removing them from power over organizing for the more fundamental economic reforms demanded by the Left. Indeed, it means working even with what is left of the liberal conservative and neoconservative trends  and those religious and social conservatives and traditionalists who have not been co-opted by the Dark Enlightenment. (i.e. the never-Trumpers). We must articulate our struggle as a defense of the liberal order which, despite all of its limitations, provides fundamental and irreplaceable protections for human dignity and for the basic freedoms on which organizing for more profound change (including the freedom required by the decentralist, intentional community strategy advocated by the extreme Left) depends, and for a defense of humanity and of life in general against what can only be called a fascist cult of Death. We are a Popular Front Against Thanos.  

But electoral struggle will not be enough, even at the level of the popular front. We must match and best the dispersed intelligence/information operations apparatus which has emerged in Russia and which has interpenetrated with the Right in the US and around the world. At one level, this is an expression at the operational level of the cultural hegemonic dimension of the popular front strategy, though creating it is a major strategic, capacity building task. While it may seem daunting, it actually speaks to the comparative advantage of the Left with its base in the humanistic intelligentsia, which specializes in just precisely these kinds of activities. And to the extent that we are able to offer our services to the Intelligence Community, it will allow us to create the same kind of presence that the Left had there going into the Second World War and the creation of the OSS, a presence which was destroyed by McCarthyism. 

The aim of a popular front, however, is never just to defeat fascism. It establishes the political and ideological conditions for the struggle to transcend capitalism. This is because, in addition to preserving a liberal and at least partly democratic order in which the struggle to transcend socialism can proceed more easily,  it 1) allows the Left to demonstrate its superior organizing ability and strategic, operational, and tactical judgment, winning the confidence of the people, and 2) lays the groundwork for a new counter hegemonic civilizational ideal centered on tapping into and nurturing the underly potential of human beings —and matter in general— for growth and development. 

This means, however, that in addition to building and leading the Popular Front Against Thanos we must undertake certain key tasks which build on the groundwork created by the popular front and actually create the conditions for transcending capitalism.

First, it is vitally important that we develop a new technological regime which, rather than engaging in combustion in order to release energy and do work, taps into the self-organizing dynamic of matter, and its natural ordering to Being as such, directly.  There is, to be sure, progress on this front, particularly in the area of energy sources, with the development of solar, wind, oceanic, and geothermal energy, but we need to go much further, so that we approach the whole problem of production differently, not as matter of using raw material, tools, and labor power, but rather as an act of ripening being.

Second, we must develop a new economy of sharing which gradually liberates people from the need to sell their labor power in order to survive and provides them with the resources and nurture they need in order to grow as creatively, politically, and spiritually. This task is inseparable from that of repairing a social fabric which has quite literally been shredded by centuries of industrial production and capitalist exploitation. We must let go of the illusion that we can have communities of care which are not also economies of sharing, and also of the illusion that economies of sharing are possible apart from rich, complex, and diverse relationships in the context of which we challenge and nurture each other, build and exercise power in service to the common good, and hold each other accountable for our contributions and our mistakes.  

Here especially, our portfolio of tactics must be exceedingly diversified. Especially in times when a transition by decadence or collapse seems more and more likely, intentional communities are extremely attractive. And they have an historic record of making real contributions to such transitions: witness the role of monasticism in Europe after the collapse of the Roman Empire, in India from the advent of Buddhism, the Jaina tradition,  and Upanishadic Hinduism on, and in China, Japan, Korea, and Southeast Asia as Buddhism entered and shaped these civilization.  Monasticism has often been the site of the development of new —and especially more sustainable— technologies, of less intensive exploitation of peasantries, and of alternative power centers, military, political, and ideological, which have helped keep empires in check. Monastic establishments can, however, become extremely burdensome and expensive, something which was probably behind the collapse of Mahayana Buddhism in Southeast Asia and its displacement by an impoverished Theravada establishment under royal patronage and control, the repression of Buddhism generally (also Mahayana) in China during the late Tang Dynasty, and the wave of secularizations which were, in many ways, constitutive of the Reformation and the liberal and democratic revolutions in Europe and Latin America. We have not yet solved the problem of how to delink monasticism and celibacy, something most contemporary intentional communities, for good reason, take for granted but which has not yet been shown to be possible over the long duree.  Monasticism has also tended not to be especially effective in struggles for cultural hegemony, where mendicant orders, clerks regular, secular institutes, secular revolutionary organizations, and even unorganized movements of intellectuals living in secular society (whether themselves ideologically religious or secular and humanistic), have done much better. And intentional communities tend to leave behind the vast majority of people who cannot afford the substantial entry costs, or who have family or other social responsibilities which make monastic withdrawal unattractive or unrealistic. 

Thus the importance of “secular” initiatives in the historic sense of the term —initiatives which operate fully within the “world” of the existing social structure, and which repair the social fabric and transform our way of life from within. In this category we would put “sharing economies” of any kind from traditional cooperative housing, gardening, grocery, health, transportation, and educational initiatives, to informal forms of sharing which emerge across the more dispersed networks of cyberspace, but which nonetheless supply real support both material, through crowdfunding, social, through virtual interactions, and ideological and cultural, by providing fora for dialogue, debate, and deliberation linked explicitly to the practice of care. Such sharing economies can emerge both outside existing institutions, among those who lack access to material and social necessities, and inside such institutions, by those who work to create parallel economies of sharing, parallel authority structures, and a counter hegemonic vision of the the purpose of the institutions in question. 

This whole work of liberating people from the need to sell their labor power in order to survive and of creating economies of care and nurture is, furthermore, facilitated by a substantial increase in the “social wage” paid to individuals regardless of their work. The centerpiece of such a social wage is, first of all, the establishment of a Universal Basic Income and its gradual increase to the point that people can live on it modestly without having to sell their labor power. But other aspects of the social wage, such as free or significantly subsidized health care, housing, public transportation, and education, where these do not exist are also important.

Third, we must create alternative and parallel structures of power which, without prematurely threatening the bourgeois state gradually overshadow it in their ability to get things done. This dual power should arise out of 1) the emerging networks of intentional/monastic communities, 2) the networks of organizers transforming existing institutions from within by struggling for a counter hegemonic civilizational ideal, and 3) the various intermediate forms of organization, virtual and territorial, which grow up between them. 

Finally, we need the counter hegemonic civilizational ideal itself —or perhaps it would be better to say a cluster of ideals— focused on tapping into the latent potential of matter in order to cultivate it but also respectful of the limits that matter imposes, and thus detached from any single trajectory of civilizational progress. In this sense it must stand between the primarily spiritual ideals which emerged out of the axial era and the secular ideals which have dominated the past 500 years. We must remain committed to inner worldly civilizational progress, but be open to progress meaning many different things, and not just technological progress which pushes back the limits of finitude or political progress which creates a political subject which imagines it can make humanity the master of its own destiny, and thus understanding civilizational progress as a means to ultimately spiritual ends. 

All of these initiatives require a greatly expanded organized mass base. This in turn requires that we develop entirely new ways of organizing. Clearly the pandemic itself presents some very specific challenges, given the impossibility of face to face social interaction. This will push us to test and perhaps the limits of virtual means of social interaction. And if and when the pandemic recedes our “return” will not be to the old normal, as both formal restrictions and significant spontaneous caution is likely to remain for some time. If HIV forced us to become more intentional regarding our sexual relationships, COVID-19 will force us to become more intentional about all of our social interactions. 

From the vantage point of the organizer, however, this is not a bad thing, since organizing, fundamentally, is intentionality regarding relationships. And given the kind of transformation we envision, this means intentionality in essentially all relationships. 

One of the principles of organizing is the distinction made between public and private relationships. Private relationships are spontaneous, formed with people we like, exist for the purpose of affection, and are based on trust; public relationships are intentional, formed with people we respect, are formed with the aim of building power and thus accomplishing something, and are governed by accountability. This is an important distinction to introduce to emerging leaders, who often have no relationships devoted to building and exercising power, and who have great difficulty acting in relation to the political allies and adversaries in ways that they that they have been taught are not “nice.” But the distinction is merely heuristic. It fails to take into account  1) the challenge, advanced most especially by feminism, to recognize that the personal is the political, and that we must transform all relationships if we are to transcend patriarchy, and 2) the fact that higher forms of friendship, as Aristotle among others pointed out, aim not just at just pleasure but at the happiness, i.e. the good of both parties, and since happiness consists in habitual excellence in the exercise of our distinctly human capacities, higher friendship aims at mutual growth and development, i.e. at realizing the general aims of human life.  Thus, while we may have relationships which are purely public in the sense that they are with people we do not like, for the purpose either of some higher good which is a means to ripening being, e.g. a transformation in social structures or civilizational ideas, or even for some lower, purely instrumental purpose, anyone who lives an examined, intentional, mindful life will approach all of their relationships intentionally, even those with people they like and where part of what is shared is pleasure of whatever kind. 

What this means is that we need to be constantly engaged in the process of identifying people who can contribute in any way to the realization of the aims of human life or, more properly, asking how everyone we encounter can best be engaged in supporting these aims. For many, perhaps the vast majority, this may not entail very much political activity in the narrower sense, or very much engagement in the struggle for cultural hegemony, but everyone can and must be engaged in hortic ways of producing, in emerging sharing economies, in (geographically or virtually) local community organizations which simultaneously care for their members and engage in action around the most basic needs, in the most elementary forms of civic responsibility such as informed voting and service on juries, and in the very broadest communities of meaning and value, whether traditional congregations or the diverse forms of ideological, cultural, and spiritual community which are emerging in their place. Human being is social being, and relating to others intentionally means, at the most basic level, connecting them to the networks, communities, and institutions they need to survive and to grow and develop. This itself is revolutionary. This itself is Tikkun Olam, mending the torn fabric of the cosmos. 

At the higher level, however, organizing is fundamentally about identifying, cultivating, mentoring, positioning, and deploying emerging, established and high value leaders. The foregoing analysis, furthermore, suggests a new way of defining leadership: leaders are those who are capable of intentionality with respect to their relationships, especially in a way that orders those relationships toward the higher ends of human life: seeking wisdom, doing justice, and ripening being or, to put the matter differently, helping individuals and communities realize their spiritual and civilizational ideals or to challenging those ideals and proposing new ones  —or both. Established and high value leaders will, furthermore, see this activity as their calling in life, and not just as an secondary or supplemental activity, and will be intentional about they way in which they relate to themselves, i.e. the way in which they organize their lives, which are consciously ordered to political and spiritual ends. Especially in an environment in which historic ways of organizing leaders, such as religious orders and revolutionary vanguards no longer seem effective, and in which a great deal of the work of leading and organizing is likely to take place through dispersed networks, it is important to be able to identify clearly who is a leader and who is not. 

Within this context, of course, there are a wide range of different sorts of leaders we need, corresponding to the principal operational tasks of our global strategy. We need scientists who can help us understand the underlying ordering of matter to Being and technologists who can create new, hortic technologies which cultivate that ordering. We need community builders who can create economies of sharing while rebuilding the torn fabric of our society. We need electoral operatives who can win elections contributing to the defeat of the of rising ethnonationalist/neofascist bloc but we also need people who can lead popular wars and urban insurrections, not because these are likely to be globally victorious but because they may be required at certain times and places, and this means that we need special operations officers and operators who can organize these campaigns as well as more targeted political-military operations. As noted above we especially need people who can counter the Russian led intelligence/information operations/unconventional warfare apparatus. And we need people who can do the hard work of forging a new spiritual and civilizational ideal and then building communities which embody it and helping individuals in the struggle to realize it. 

Humanity is at a difficult crossroads —at least at the level of the decline of the Roman Empire which, paradoxically, unleashed the complex process which lead historically backward Europe to global domination, and perhaps at the level of the Late Bronze Age Collapse. This crossroads also suggests a fundamentally different reading of the broad arc of human history. As our analysis suggests, human history is dialectical in more senses than Marx recognized. The challenges we face now from climate change, pollution, resource depletion, and pandemics are products not simply impediments to progress. Industrial capitalism in particular, but the broader arc of civilizational progress, based as it is on extraction, extensive cultivation, centralized accumulation, and global trade generates serious contradictions. This does not mean that we need to revert to some sort of deep ecological/anarcho-primitivist utopia (or rather dystopia, given the likely impact on human population levels). It does mean that we need to find some way to cultivate human creative capacity which does not involve the combustion, literal and figurative, of existing forms of organization, but instead taps into and nurtures the latent potential not only of each and every human being but of everything that exists.  The outcome is by no means certain. Extinctions happen. But I am confident that our species will rise to the challenge, engage our capacity for nurture as well as discovery, and resume, albeit in a very different way, our journey to the stars. 


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Resisting Neoliberal Hegemony

Nicholas Kristof, in an end of the year column entitled “This Has Been The Best Year Ever,”. (New York Times, 28 December 2019) presents compelling, but ultimately deceptive evidence that:

“In the long arc of human history, 2019 has been the best year ever.

The bad things that you fret about are true. But it’s also true that since modern humans emerged about 200,000 years ago, 2019 was probably the year in which children were least likely to die, adults were least likely to be illiterate and people were least likely to suffer excruciating and disfiguring diseases.”

His numbers are solid —and should not be ignored. But the underlying forces behind the progress he identifies are, in the end, neither healthy or sustainable. Specifically, the progress Kristof identifies is the result, by and large, of 1) technological progress which allows us to exploit the resource base of our planet more effectively and 2) more extensive and intensive exploitation of the human population.

The most deceptive figure that he cites, because it seems to contradict claims of growing inequality, is the World Bank claim that the percentage of people living in extreme poverty (living on less than $2/day)dropped from 42% of the world’s population to just 10% of that population in 2015, using constant (2011) dollar measures.

This figure is not without political significance, to be sure. It is largely the result of the incorporation of a vastly larger percentage of the population into capitalist relations of production which employ them in industrial process of production which are more “productive” in the sense of creating greater value added, a small and in some cases increasing portion of which is shared with the workers in the form of higher wages. Forty years ago most of the people who have now moved out of “extreme poverty were either subsistence peasants or marginalized surplus population subsisting in the informal economy in the barrios and favelas of the old Third World. What the figure tells us is that the strict “Third Worldist” analysis of the global economy, set forth by theoreticians such as Samir Amin (Amin 1978/1980) turns out to be wrong. According to this analysis, capitalist development is either impossible in low wage countries because of the absence of an internal market for manufactured goods, or else does not lead to economic growth and higher wages. More importantly from a political perspective, the surplus produced by workers in the Third World is shared with workers in the imperial metropoles, resulting in wages which are higher than the value of their labor power, creating a privileged “labor aristocracy” which has no interest in anticapitalist revolution. On the contrary, since the defeat of the national liberation movements and the advent of the neoliberal regime in 1978-1989, we have witnessed rapid growth across much though not all of the Third World, and rising wages in its more “advanced” regions, such as China.

This does not, however, mean that either neoliberalism or capitalist development generally are good things. First of all, from an ecological and technological vantage point, the development which has taken place is based on Second Industrial Revolution technologies which have led to continued rising carbon emissions at a time when we need to cut them in half by 2030. Redeployment of industrial production to low wage countries has allowed the continued exploitation of destructive industrial technologies which more prosperous populations would no longer tolerate, instead of forcing the development of new technologies with a lower carbon footprint.

Second, the development which has taken place is based on the more extensive and intensive exploitation of human labor power. By extensive exploitation we mean the incorporation of ever larger sectors of the human population in the capitalist labor force (i.e. proletarianization). A much larger percentage of the population is being forced to sell its labor power in order to survive —and is then being told that they should be grateful for it. By intensive exploitation we mean that these workers are using more advanced technologies, and therefore producing a much higher surplus, so that the gap between the richest and everyone else continues to expand even as wages in the poorest countries grow and the most extreme poverty declines.

This is not to say that none of the gains are real. Viewed in a longue duree perspective, industrialization and capitalist development were adaptations to conditions in Europe in the late Middle Ages (low population and thus a perpetual labor shortage, creating an incentive to invest in labor saving devices coupled with a surplus population of landless aristocrats who for historically contingent, partly epidemiological and partly technological reasons, were able to conquer the planet and carry out the primitive accumulation of capital necessary to “jump-start” the process of industrialization). The result allowed Europe and, at least temporarily the planet, to support a much higher population than would otherwise have been possible. And not all of the resulting technological advances —such as those which have reduced child mortality— are bad.

The problem, rather, is that the optimistic neoliberal reading of the current situation is based on a fundamental misunderstanding of both the sustainability of industrial technology and of the ends of human life. Industrial technology is defined by the dynamic of literally and figuratively combusting existing forms of organization, whether mineral or plant or animal (including organized human communities) in order to release energy and do work. Combustion has always been part of humanity’s adaptation to this planet, but industrial technology brings it to the fore. We have, for the past 200 years —or more, if we consider the “combustion” of human communities— been burning through what Buckminster Fuller called humanity’s “cosmic energy savings account.” It is not surprising that we have compromised the habitability of the planet.

People will, sometimes, appear to choose such combustion —even the combustion of their lives and of their communities— whether because those lives and communities have already been torn apart by the penetration of capitalist relations of production into the countryside and they simply have no other way to survive, or because they fall for the lure of a “better” high consumption life (and often through a complex combination of these two motives). European peasants did it in the nineteenth and twentieth century and peasants throughout Asia, Africa, and Latin America are doing it now. But it is a choice that we make against our own humanity. First, vanishingly little of the surplus we create ends up in our own hands. This is true even where there are rising wages. But more importantly, we are not mere batteries, and cannot live as such. When we are forced to sell our labor power in order to survive we sell our autonomy and our sociality and our creative capacity. We sell our very humanity.

What is more, after selling our humanity for several generations, we forget what we are. We imagine that we really are just consumers and that a few bumps in the road notwithstanding, everything really is getting better. When this happens, resistance –and ultimately humanity– come to an end.

This is why both Third Worldists and acellerationists (Right and Left) are wrong. Third Worldists are wrong because even the most privileged “First World” worker, even one who is actually benefiting from surplus extracted from the Third World, has an interest in transcending capitalism. The deepest suffering imposed by capitalism is not impoverishment but rather the loss of autonomy, of community, and of creative control over our work. Accellerationsts are wrong because continuing along our present pathway at an ever faster pace, even if we someone escape climate apocalypse, will destroy our humanity and there will be nothing left except robots and consumers.

This is not, to be sure, to suggest that we can or should simply “aim the main blow” against capitalism and industrial technology. First, we are simply not ready. We need to develop new, hortic technologies that tap into the self-organizing dynamic of matter itself. Solar and wind are a start, and will hopefully get us past the current climate crisis, but there is a great deal more that needs to be done. We need a whole new way of producing that enhances rather than degrading the integrity of the ecosystem and the social fabric. We also need to develop new ways of organizing labor that do not require people to sell their labor power —something which historic socialism promised but did not even begin to deliver. On the contrary, nationalization and large scale collectivization of the means of production is simply another way to rapidly complete the process of proletarianization.

Second, the recent turn to the far right and especially the rise of the Dark Enlightenment which brings together Right Accelerationist and Ethnonationalist tendencies, threatens to effectively destroy the liberal and democratic rights for which humanity has struggled for thousands of years. We have an authentic common cause with much of the liberal bourgeoisie, an alliance which may even deepen if, as I have argued elsewhere, Capital continues to emerge as an autonomous intelligence independent of the historic bourgeoisie. And the willingness of the liberal bourgeoisie, acting through its political parties, to take serious action around climate change, to expand publically subsidized health care coverage, to support LGBTQ rights and to strengthen protections against sexual violence, and even to consider measures like a universal basic income represent not only significant extensions of liberal rights but also our best hope for averting climate apocalypse and beginning to gradually decommodify labor power. A popular front against the Dark Enlightenment, complemented by in-depth organizing and community building to create the material and spiritual conditions for transcending capitalism and industry, remains the correct strategy for the working classes worldwide.

This said, Kristof’s “reminder” that things are still getting better no matter how bad they seem represents an intervention within the popular front to secure the hegemony of the liberal bourgeoisie. It is, in effect, an apology for technocracy, for the idea that continued technological progress along current lines, coupled with intelligent social engineering will eventually resolve the planet’s problems —with no need to call into question the underlying structures of capitalism or the debased civilizational ideal it serves. This is one of the principal forms of hegemony of the liberal bourgeoisie within the aptly named Progressive Alliance, and it stands in the way of questioning the bourgeois outlook on the aims of human life by making all questions ultimately technical. Technocratic hegemony is also frequently mediated by the demand that initiatives be assessed by quantifiable measures.

The other principal form of liberal bourgeois hegemony is the ideal of meritocracy and the associated Protestant Ethic, according to which our wealth and social status reflect our usefulness to society and our usefulness to society our underlying character and spiritual state. The implication, of course, is that the bourgeoisie is, in fact, simply superior.

As long as people believe these lies, we will will never have any choice except that between liberal capitalism and authoritarian capitalism. But our task is a delicate one that requires the greatest political subtlety and maturity. For now, the electoral arena, at least above the level of congressional districts in key multicultural urban areas, belongs to the bourgeoisie and we must be willing to offer unrestricted support to the liberal bourgeoisie in upcoming general election cycles if we are to defeat Trump and his allies in Europe and Russia, Turkey and India and deal a setback to the powerful authoritarian tendencies at work in our society. This does not mean that we cannot press more radical policy initiatives where they actually have a chance —but then that would be in a Democratic Congress under a Democratic President —or, in Europe, under social democratic or social liberal governments –i.e. governments of the liberal bourgeoisie. And it is certainly worth working out detailed transitional policies which provide a credible and minimally disruptive pathways for unwinding or dependence on fossil fuels, the nexus between private insurance and health care and between higher education and meritocracy, while building broad mass support for a universal basic income and a shorter work week. And we must, above all, resist the liquidation of public liberal education in which the liberal bourgeoisie has been fully complicit in recent years. After generations of being forced to sell their labor power, the older popular, democratic, and religious traditions of the working classes which provided a language in which to articulate anticapitalist resistance have withered away. Increasingly, with out revolutionary theory there really can be no revolutionary movement.

But most of our work in challenging the liberal bourgeoisie for hegemony in the popular front will need to be at the base: building communities of meaning and value which restore to the people the aspiration for autonomous creativity and democratic solidarity, while identifying, cultivating, and mentoring leaders who can carry the struggle across generations. We must begin to restore the lost commons which allowed people to survive without selling themselves, and create sanctuaries in which their new found sense of meaning can be nurtured. This is the really hard work, as progress is slow and almost always impossible to measure.

It is good to know that the past 500 years are not a dead loss. But imagining that the underlying processes which led to these gains will resolve the challenges of the next steps in the human civilizational project is a fundamental mistake. Capitalism and industry are exhausting themselves and exhausting humanity. It is time for a new departure.

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Civilization and Revolution

Civilization and Revolution: it is rare indeed to hear these two terms joined by a conjunction. The term “civilization” is invoked most often by conservatives defending the values of a particular civilization or perhaps by liberal cosmopolitans hoping to trade the neoconservative “clash of civilizations” for a dialogue. Revolutionaries have, at least since Rousseau, been skeptical about the discipline which civilization imposes on “natural” humanity, or nervous about the racism and imperialism implicit in the distinction between civilized and … “other” societies.

This essay will suggest a different perspective, one which makes commitment to the human civilizational project fundamental to any authentic revolutionary stand and which suggests that, especially as humanity approaches the point at which Capital emerges as an autonomous power independent of the historic bourgeoisie, and as human labor power approaches obsolescence, the distance between authentic conservatism and authentic revolution is rapidly disappearing.

In order to make this case we will need, to begin with, to define our terms. We will then go on to show how revolutionary transformations are, in fact, constitutive of the human civilizational project, and how it is service to that project which separates revolutionary transformations from interest group politics —and anticivilizational violence. Finally, we will draw out at some length the implications of this distinction for the way in which we approach the current situation developing, in the process, a new understanding of what a transition to a postcapitalist society might actually look like.


What, then, is civilization? And what do we mean by the “human civilizational project?” And what exactly is “revolution” as opposed to other forms of social change?

Let me be clear that I do not understand civilization primarily by contrast with pre-urban band, tribal, or village based human social formations. Rather, I understand by the human civilizational project the protracted process by which a rational animal —homo sapiens in particular— deepens, over the course of millennia, its understanding of its own individual and collective aims and develops the technological, economic, political, and cultural means to realize those aims. I prefer the term to something like “social evolution” because it embraces spiritual as well as material aims, and I prefer it to spiritualization or spiritual evolution because it embraces the very material means by which human spiritual aims must be pursued.

Understood in this way, the human civilizational project forms an integral part and a critically important phase in a much larger cosmohistorical process, by means of which matter (the potential for Being), drawn out by the attractive power of Being as such, gradually gives birth to spirit (Mansueto 1995) and the eternal manifests itself under the conditions of space and time.

The concept of civilization is, in fact, essential to any complete and consistent social theory. As we have argued at length in other contexts (Mansueto 2002a, 2010, 2016), the principal traditions of secular social theory are, as they stand, incomplete. Historical materialism (Marx 1846, 1848), for example, while quite correct that political and cultural institutions grow up on a definite material basis, forgets that labor is from the beginning an intellectual act. And this is true not just in the sense of requiring techne or excellence in making, but in the sense of requiring wisdom, which comprehends the broader purposes to which that techne is ordered. This, in turn, presupposes an entire ideological, cultural, and religious context in which those purposes are embedded. And it presupposes the single, final end to which all other partial and intermediate ends are ordered. What human beings seek is the power of Being as such —what the philosophical tradition across humanity’s diverse spiritual traditions has understood to be God. In this sense, Sartre (Sartre 1943) was correct when he called humanity “the desire to be God.”

Interpretive sociology (Weber 1920), on the other hand, correctly points out that human social action is constituted by the meanings with which we endow this action, apart from which it is neither human nor comprehensible. But it leaves the genesis of those meanings unexplained and fails to account for the ways in which our understanding of the aims of human life, not to mention our ability to realize those aims, is constrained by material conditions and social structures.

Functionalism, finally, whether in its original Durkheimian form (Durkheim 1917) or as modified and “completed” by Talcott Parsons attempts to bring these two sides together, arguing that all social forms are adaptive to both the material environment and to what Parsons, following Tillich, calls “ultimate reality.” But while both (Durkheim much more than Parsons) recognize that there may be strains and tensions in this adaptive process, they both miss the critical element of contradiction which gave historical materialism its revolutionary dynamism and enabled it to explain social change. Structures —and ideals— which serve civilizational progress and thus human development at one point in history not only can but generally do become obstacles at later points in history. Without this insight the theory tends either to yield too much either to cautious reformism or to historical ungrounded and acontextual revolutionary spontaneity.

In order to solve this problem we need to recognize that what we humans seek at the most basic animal level of our existence: nutrition, growth, and reproduction, sensation and locomotion, is the same as what we seek at the highest levels of spiritual development: it is Being as such, simply understood in a different way and to a different degree. Thus our correction of historical materialism, which argues that human civilization, as we have defined it above:

Emerges on a definite material basis, physical, biological, social, etc.
And uses definite structures: technological, economic, political, and cultural, to
Pursue particular spiritual and civilizational ideals which emerge on the basis of and are conditioned by this material and structural base.

Human societies can change, sometimes radically, for reasons which begin at any of these various levels. The ecosystem may change, becoming hotter or colder, wetter or dryer. The structures by which the society is pursuing its particular civilizational ideal may develop internal contradictions or cease to serve that ideal. Or the ideal itself may begin to seem partial and inadequate.

This understanding of civilization, in turn, provides us with our definition of a properly revolutionary stand, and allows us to understand both how close it is to an authentic conservatism (and even to the perennialist form of traditionalism) and exactly where it differs. Both the authentic conservative and the authentic revolutionary value human civilization. The conservative, however, tends to identify the human civilizational project with his or her particular civilizational ideal and the particular institutions which have emerged to serve that ideal, even where that ideal falls short of the ultimate aim of the project as a whole, which is the power of Being as such and even where those institutions have failed to realize that ideal, a result which is falsely attributed to the limitations of materiality or humanity in general. The perennialist traditionalist, similarly identifies (with limited but not complete justification, cf Mansueto 2016) the human civilizational project with a sofia perennis shared across civilizations from which social transformation represents, at best, a falling away. To be revolutionary is, on the other hand, to privilege the ultimate aim of the human civilizational project over any of its concrete expressions and to constantly question whether or not the institutions we have developed to realize our ideal still actually serve it.

This said, we also need to distinguish between a revolutionary stand and voluntarism, utopianism, and maximalism. This is, in fact, (along with his theory of alienation and his analysis of capitalist society) one of Marx’s greatest contributions. “Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past (Marx 1852).” The simple fact that a civilizational ideal is limited and incomplete (which they all are) or that structures and institutions fail to serve an ideal perfectly (they all do) does not mean that we have reached the point historically at which a new ideal can emerge or a structural transformation (which is what historical materialists generally meant by revolution) can take place. Voluntarists ignore this fact and attempt either to force the hand of history by imposing transformations for which the conditions are not yet ripe. Utopians withdraw from what they regard as failed and hopeless civilization and attempt to live their ideal in secluded communities. The principal danger in the present period, however, is neither voluntarism nor utopianism. It is maximalism. Maximalists assume that the immediate benefits of revolutionary transformation are so obvious that once they are explained, the people will embrace them swiftly and allow what they imagine to be a revolutionary transformation to take place at the ballot box. They thus put forward a maximum program and try to sell it on the basis of its immediate material benefits. The result is always defeat.

Conservatives need to become revolutionaries. They need to own the fact that the principles values they uphold are only an approximation of the real ends of human life, which are beyond comprehension, and that the institutions which serve those ideals are flawed, often in fundamental and oppressive ways, marked by commodification, misogyny, and racism. But revolutionaries also need to become conservatives, and re-reading Marx will help us accomplish this. We cannot change human societies in just any way we want to. We can only address the the contradictions of the present period, situating those, to be sure, in their broader historical and meta-civilizational context, and doing the hard work of both conserving and transforming in the precise ways the current situation demands.


How does this play out historically? In ways that contemporary conservatives and revolutionaries alike will probably find at least paradoxical and probably rather disturbing. Because we seek the power of Being as such, we humans can never be satisfied with any finite or contingent good. We seek (to become) God, but do not know what this really means. And so, as soon as the technology became available, (bronze in Afroeurasia, very sophisticated stone such as obsidian in the Americas) we made weapons, conquered our near neighbors, and extracted tribute from them with aim living off their labor and requiring that they build heavens for us in the form of temples and palaces. It didn’t work. Subject to rents, taxes, and forced labor people stopped innovating and the whole system collapsed after a few thousand years (around 1200 BCE in Afroeurasia; later on the American timeline). But conquest and enslavement of the vast majority of humanity was the first revolution, the one which set the whole historical process in motion.

Would another way have been possible? I am inclined to think that it was and that we see it in the great megalithic cultures which developed in the late Neolithic, which built temple complexes linking together many villages in support of the ritual exploration and dissemination of meaning, the exploration of the arts and sciences, and the organization of labor to undertake projects beyond the capacity of any one village. But not every ecosystem could support this strategy, and metal technology (especially when combined with the domestication of the horse) opened up what at least looked like a faster route and one which spread rapidly enough to wipe out the alternatives.

The result, of course, was to infect the human civilizational project from very early on with the great evils with which we still struggle. Warfare, a predominantly though not exclusively male activity (because it so interferes with the extended nurture human children require) shifted the balance of power against women, who in horticultural societies were probably on at least an equal footing with men. The vast majority of human beings, rather than being free to seek Being individually or in community, as best they could, became tools of the dynasts who sought it for themselves alone. And conquest and empire began to teach humanity that some peoples are superior to others, a lesson we are only now beginning to unlearn.

From this point on, of course, it was above all the oppressed —those whose aspirations for the divine have been crushed— who become the social basis for subsequent revolutions. It was ultimately a series of peasant revolts which set off humanity’s next revolution, which brought about the Axial Age, the period between 800 BCE and 200 BCE which witnessed the problematization of religious meaning, the demand that everyone be able to fully participate in the economic, political, and cultic life of their communities, and which began to subject claims about meaning and value to conceptual formalization and critical scrutiny. This is the period which gave us Judaism and Hellenism, Hinduism and Buddhism, the Confucian and Taoist traditions, and indirectly, through them, Christianity and Islam, liberalism, democracy, and communism. This was the second revolution, and the great traditions which define the sofia perennis to which authentic conservatives are devoted were, in fact, the product, indirectly at least, of peasant revolts.

This was, in the end, a very incomplete revolution. Partly this was due to limitations in the axial traditions themselves. None of these traditions mount a real critique of patriarchy, for example. But material conditions played the predominant role. Full cultic participation did not always mean access to philosophical wisdom and thus rational autonomy. Rational autonomy did not always mean access to full and equal participation in the public arena. And participation in the public arena did not necessarily mean a life devoted to seeking wisdom, doing justice, and ripening being. And this was, above all, because (as Marx would later point out regarding the liberal and democratic revolutions) those who are forced to spend their lives laboring for others are in no position to access these higher goods. And to the extent that the axial revolutions did transform material conditions, the structures they created could not endure. Subsistence peasant production protected from exploitation by limits on the rate of surplus extraction of the sort we find in ancient Israel and under the Zhou dynasty gave way to petty commodity production —generally of specialized agricultural products like oil, wine, and spices, and craft products like textiles and pottery— for global trade. This in turn led to economic differentiation. In some places, such as Athens, further peasant revolts slowed down this process. But in the end, as this highly successful economic model spread, the comparative of early adopters evaporated. Real wealth —and thus real freedom from toil— required the exploitation not of a local comparative advantage but rather of entire segments of the global trade network. By 200 BCE new empires arose which did just this. Because these empires looked to the now dominant axial traditions for legitimation, those traditions were able to soften the oppression exercised by these empires, but only in part.

That the axial revolutions were unable to fully realize their aims is no reason to reject their achievements, and especially the profound spiritual traditions they bequeathed us. At the same time, we need to avoid the conclusion drawn by many conservitives. Those who see to conserve the achievements of these revolutions in spite of their limitations realize (correctly) that the full realization of human aspirations is impossible under conditions of finitude and contingency. But they then make this an excuse for not engaging the continued instrumentalization of humanity by human beings.

The third revolution was the product of technological developments which began in the Silk Road Era. Wet rice cultivation in China and India, the enormous progress of irrigation technology and horticulture in Dar-al-Islam, and the development of the transhumant pastoralism and the three field system in Europe all vastly increased agrarian productivity and made it possible to free up a much larger portion of the human population for non-agricultural labor: crafts and manufacturing, trade, warfare, politics, scientific, scholarly and creative activity and spiritual practice. In China, India, and Dar-al-Islam, the resulting increase in the food supply led to massive increases in population, perpetuating, for the time being, the reliance on human labor for production. But in much of Europe populations were lower to begin with and just as they were taking off they were “pruned back” by the Black Death, creating an incentive to invest in labor saving devices. At roughly the same time (the twelfth century CE), the process of feudal expansion, through which newly improved or improvable arable land was granted out to succeeding generations of knights bachelor/ was completed, creating pressure for military-territorial expansion which found expression in the Crusades, the Reconquista, and the Conquests of Asia, Africa, and the Americas. This expansion, in turn, both helped forge absolutist sovereign nation states and provided the greater part of the primitive accumulation of capital necessary for industrialization.

The result was two competing civilizational trajectories. One, centered in the newly prosperous peasants emancipated through successful peasant revolts in England, the Low Countries, and Northern Italy and in the expanding urban bourgeoisie and petty bourgeoisie everywhere in Europe, sought to extend the axial project by creating political subjects which could make humanity the master of its own destiny and liberate human creativity from the predations of exploiting classes. This is the genesis of liberal, democratic, and ultimately communist humanism. The other, centered on the absolutist state and eventually on the large merchant, emerging industrial, and financial bourgeoisie was focused on leveraging the results of the scientific revolution to maximize productivity and ultimately transcend finitude by means of technological and economic progress. This trajectory found expression in the Protestant Reformation, and especially the Reformed tradition, and eventually in the global capitalist order we inhabit today.

These trajectories have not always been opposed. The liberation of labor from drudgery is necessary to support even a liberal —much less a democratic or communist— humanism would be impossible without technological progress beyond that which made the axial revolutions possible. But by the middle of the nineteenth century it was apparent that the two trajectories were, at the very least, in profound tension with each other. As Marx made clear in the Paris Manuscripts, those who are forced to sell their labor power —in a capitalist society the vast majority— can never fully develop or realize their creative potential. And capitalism is all about exploiting human creativity as efficiently as possible.

The civilization which has emerged has struggled to hold these two ideals together, making each serve the other. We thus have (classical, or liberal-conservative) liberals who believe that their capacity for self-determination is dependent on absolute private property rights and (social) liberals who believe that it is possible only on the basis of a rational autonomy the capacity for which requires extended education, and the free exercise of which requires significant counterweights, generally in the form of state intervention, to the power of larger private property. We have radical/civic democrats who believe that humanity finds fulfillment in the process of collectively determining its destiny and plebiscitary/utilitarian democrats who believe that democracy is all about giving “the people” what they want. We have socialists and communists who believe that the development of the productive forces will allow us to transcend scarcity and allow us to transcend the commodification of labor power and liberate human creativity once and for all, and socialists and communists who believe that this emphasis on the development of the productive forces simply perpetuates the instrumentalization of human creative capacity.

We have these, but mostly we have those who have embraced what Walter Benjamin Benjamin 1921) called “capitalism as a religion,” a (further) secularized form of Weber’s Protestant Ethic (Weber 1921) in which the Calvinist God who was a reflex of Capital is collapsed into Capital itself, a religion which Benjamin described as “without mercy or truce.” Most live this religion unconsciously, believing themselves to be Jews, Christians, or Muslims, Buddhist or Hindus, Confucians or Taoists, liberals, democrats, or socialists. A small elite embrace it consciously, though even they tend soften its infinite austerity with the conviction that they are among the optimally adapted elect and with the hope that technological progress will lead them to immortality or even divinization. But more on that later. From the vantage point of those fully initiated into the cult of Capital what remains of the axial traditions, along with liberalism (even classical liberal-conservatism), democracy, and socialism (particularly specified as being “with Chinese characteristics” are simply forms of legitimation for a project they know ordinary humans could never embrace.

As Marx demonstrated, capitalism is inherently unstable. Technological progress, which ultimately drives the accumulation of Capital, also increases its organic composition and thus lowers the rate of profit, leading to the redeployment of Capital to low technology, low skill, low wage activities (read imperialism). By reducing the work necessary to reproduce labor power, it also drives down the value of labor power, ultimately towards zero, leading to crises of underconsumption. For a very long time now, a combination of technocratic supply and demand side management and liberal, democratic, and/or socialist legitimation have kept the system stable. But now we are reaching a critical moment.

But will it, as many seem to believe, be a socialist moment? The mainstream of the workers movement, both Social Democratic and Communist, believed that the road forward towards communism was to seize control of the state, whether by electoral struggle or insurrection or popular war, and then to use the state to collectivize and transform the economy. Most (both Social Democrats and Soviet Communists) looked to the state to accelerate technological progress with the aim of eventually transcending scarcity and liberating labor from commodification. The result was that socialist societies, deferring decommodification until “after the millennium,” left intact an alienation of labor which undercut humanity’s ordering to the realization of its own creative potential —and ultimately their support for the socialist project. Indeed, workers in the Soviet Union did not even remain firm in their support for the very substantial and fruitful Soviet investment in civilizational progress in arenas as diverse as the arts, science, and philosophy, technology, and sports, achievements which are real and which, in the shadow of the Soviet collapse and the rise of what amounts to a criminal oligarchy, must not be forgotten. Others, especially Maoists, looked to the party-state to lead a Cultural Revolution which would essentially abolish egoism and create a new humanity in which everyone is a saint and commodification can be achieved even without abolishing scarcity because everyone already wants to do what the common good requires.

A careful reading of Marx should have been enough for us to realize that both approaches would yield catastrophic results. But a careful reading of Marx presupposes a “conservative” respect for the broader civilizational traditions in which he is located and for the very real constraints imposed by material and structural conditions. Superexploitation of the working classes in order to promote rapid economic growth, whether under capitalism or under a socialism which leaves the commodification of labor intact is not going to cultivate a communist desire to cultivate one’s creative capacity in service to the common good. It will, on the contrary, create demoralized materialistic workers who feel used, abused, and apathetic. Study and struggle campaigns, often accompanied by grotesque violence, do not cultivate saints but rather cynical conformists and sadistic political-ideological operatives.

The error here is different from that made by axial conservatives, but no less dangerous. It is the claim that materiality itself, the condition of finitude and contingency under which we live, can be transcended by technological and political means. This is simply not true and we have seen that attempts to do so lead to violence and demoralization. They also draw attention away from the difficult spiritual work required if we are to transcend patriarchy, the commodification of labor power, and the racist legacy of empire.


Where does this leave us?

Notwithstanding the the contradictions of the socialist project outlined above, there are many, especially among the millennial generation, who seem to have decided that the time has at last arrived for a “democratic socialism.” While I share their hope that a progressive exit from the current crisis is at least possible, as well as a dedication to historic aims (decommodification) of which I am not certain they are even fully aware, I am less confident that democratic socialism, at least as they understand it, is on the horizon, both because the problems of capitalism notwithstanding, the conditions are still far from ripe and because I am increasingly inclined to believe that the state has real limits as an instrument for social transformation.

In what remains of this essay I would like to sketch out my analysis of the current crisis of the human civilizational project and explain what I would offer in place of “democratic socialism.”

I have written elsewhere that the failure of both capitalism and historic socialism to realize the secular ideal of deification by means of innerworldly civilizational progress has created a situation of general civilizational crisis (Mansueto 2010). We now stand at a critical juncture in the unfolding of this crisis, a juncture defined by two principal developments: 1) the impending obsolescence of human labor power as the result of technological progress leading to the automation of ever more human functions and 2) the emergence of Capital as an autonomous power, independent of the historic bourgeoisie. These two developments radically alter the political-theological terrain and represent an existential threat to the human civilizational project of a kind it may well never have faced before.

The first of these developments has long been foreseen by historical materialism, even if historic socialism postponed it into an almost eschatologically distant future. It is not at all clear, even now, just how long it will take to reach the point at which essentially everything that Capital desires or everything humanity as a whole requires (two different things) can be satisfied without direct human labor. Most likely we are still looking at hundreds of years. And even then we will not have fully transcended scarcity. Human aspirations are infinite, and there will thus always be struggles around how limited resources should be allocated. And as we have pointed out elsewhere, there are grave questions about whether or not automation, to the extent that if involves machine intelligence, simply reinstates the problem of slavery. But we are entering a period in which it is possible to imagine freeing up a qualitatively greater percentage of human labor for creative activity —and also to imagine that Capital might conclude that it no longer needs humanity.

The second development, the emergence of Capital as an autonomous power, was not foreseen by historical materialism and has not, to my knowledge, been thematized by any significant trend in social theory. By the emergence of Capital as an autonomous power we mean, quite literally, the emergence of what amounts to a superhuman intelligence operating across the market system, assisted but not utterly dependent on information technologies as well as (at least up to this point) what amount to human technicians, aimed at maximizing profit and the accumulation of Capital. It is, in effect, an asuric power which aims to liberate itself from humanity. This does not, to be sure, mean that it might never develop its own spiritual and civilizational projects. Everything, even the asura are, after all, participants in the power of Being as such. And the Buddhist tradition in particular reminds us that even asura can take refuge and seek enlightenment. But thus far, at this primitive stage of its development, it shows every sign of a ruthless disregard for humanity and for the cultivation of complex organization in the universe.

Both of these developments are directly the result of the implementation of the neoliberal regime of accumulation after roughly 1978, a process which presupposed the defeat of the Soviet bloc, the national liberation movements and the peasant communities which formed their principal base, and the effective destruction of the workers movement, especially in the old imperial metropoles. This defeat of the combined forces of historic socialism, in turn, permitted the full development and implementation of information technologies available since at least the end of the Second World War (which had been held back by policies protecting older technologies and older ways of organizing labor), something which both created the information technological matrix and the global market out of Capital has emerged as an autonomous power, as well as unleashing the automation of an ever larger percentage of the labor which Capital requires. This, in turn, led to the predictable stagnation and even decline of wages (including the social wage paid through income transfers and free or subsidized state services) in the imperial metropoles but also, rather surprisingly (probably because of the sheer increase in productivity), to rapid growth, including significant growth in wages, in the old Third World, significantly reducing, though by no means eliminating the metropolitan privilege which defined the historic schism between social liberalism and social democracy on the one hand and the national liberation movements and communism on the other (Amin 1978/1980).

Indeed, the alliance between the then advanced sectors of the bourgeoisie based in the consumer durables sector and the privileged sectors of the working classes in the old imperial metropoles which supported the Democratic Party in the United States and the various social democratic and left Social Christian parties in Europe effectively collapsed, leaving the nonintellectual working classes without effective representation. What replaced it was a much weaker “left neoliberal” alliance, generally called the Third Way or Center Left, which integrated elements in the finance, information, and high technology sectors of Capital with a much smaller base in the technocratic petty bourgeoisie and high skilled and intellectual working class which was able to profit, sometimes quite handsomely, from the new regime of accumulation. The humanistic intelligentsia, both petty bourgeois and working class, and the historically oppressed minorities, supported the Center Left largely because of its support for women’s reproductive rights, cultural cosmopolitanism, and more liberal migration policies –and the absence of a credible alternative.

This Center Left differed from the neoliberal Center Right only by degree. Both shared the conviction that it was necessary to break the power of labor (now classed simply as a special interest, with attention focused especially on public sector unions) and to scale back social wages; they simply disagreed on how fast and how far this process should go. And the Center Left, unlike the Center Right, generally believed that part of the old welfare state should be replaced with funds to support education and training to enable more workers to profit from expanding high technology industries. The Center Right, on the other hand, defined itself electorally increasingly by means of an opportunistic appeal to religious, social, and ethno-national conservatism, appealing to resentment of the liberal cosmopolitanism which became the cultural mark (and which was in fact one of the principal assets) of the technogentry and the humanistic intelligentsia, and by “libertarian” attacks on the state bureaucracies which they convinced more and more workers were the principal cause of their marginalization. And they periodically “shared” the fruits of their attack on the state with the working classes in the form of tax cuts. But there was little reason to believe that their aims went further than the “perfection” of the neoliberal order they had helped to create, an order which took liberal norms and at least the pretense of democracy for granted.

Or so it appeared …

By 2008 this neoliberal condominium had reached an impasse. The immediate crisis was largely a result of the use of loose credit to shore up demand as wages declined, and of the development of increasingly luxuriant and baroque forms of financial speculation designed to circumvent the secular decline in the rate of profit as technology progressed. The immediate crisis, in other words, was a crisis of the means of stabilization of the neoliberal order. But those stabilizing (and ultimately destabilizing) measures were necessary because of the reassertion of the fundamental contradictions of capitalism itself. The response to the crisis, furthermore, which remained within the bounds of what both the Center Left and Center Right would accept (with the United States actually veering much further left than Europe during this period, providing essentially the only global stimulus), addressed largely the failure of the means of stabilization, not the underlying contradictions, even in the limited way that the New Deal and Great Society, coupled with WWII and Cold War had ameliorated underconsumption tendencies and the declining rate of profit in high technology sectors by means of social and military Keynesianism. Because of this the recovery, while very real and not very long in coming, in the sense that economic growth was restored, did very little to improve the conditions of the vast majority of the population. This, in turn, set the stage for another crisis, this one political.

Within this context the phenomenon of Barack Obama looks less and less important. We are only now beginning to have enough distance on the events of 2008 to put them into perspective, but it is clear that we must make a distinction between Barack Obama himself and the broader significance of his administration. Theologically Obama is technically a liberationist, convinced that we meet God first and foremost in the struggle for social justice. But he stands towards the rightward end of this trend, influenced, like several US Presidents before him, by Reinhold Niebuhr, who stressed the political implications of original sin, the impossibility of realizing the Kingdom of God on earth, and thus the importance of political realism. There is much within Obama’s formation which puts him outside the dominant neoliberal consensus, but his focus was always on working pragmatically within the existing structures, which during his lifetime showed no sign of changing, to advance the cause of justice and bend the arc of history ever so slightly more towards the Good.

It is, furthermore, important to remember that while Obama created, over the course of his campaigns and administration, something of an organization, Organizing for America, there was not, is not, and likely never will be an “Obama wing” of the Democratic Party in the sense that there most definitely is a Clinton wing and that there was a Kennedy wing which lives on in the left social liberal wing of the party which now stands between the Clintonian center and the new democratic socialist left. Obama had to work with these two wings of the party, the first of which embodied and led the left-neoliberal alliance and the second of which represented the old, defeated, social liberal alliance of the New Deal and Great Society eras, and after 2010 with a Center Right fearful of losing control of the Republican Party to wave after wave of extremists.

In this sense the Obama years represented a holding pattern, a period of drawing out the implications of the crisis of 2008 and of reflection regarding the implications of the deeper social trends which gave birth to that crisis. Under the circumstances, this was the best that we could expect and it is a sign of Obama’s maturity as a leader that he was able to accept it and make the best of it. And this would have continued under Hilary Clinton, who stands somewhat to the left of her husband and who, in any case, is smart enough to recognize the developing contradictions of neoliberalism.

The result of this interregnum, however, was fundamentally polarization, first of all within the bourgeoisie. The progressive sectors of the bourgeoisie moved cautiously to the left, so that by the time of Obama’s second term it was not at all unusual to hear proposals coming, even from within the bourgeoisie itself, for a minimum basic income and for a significant expansion of the social safety net. This represents the humanitarian response to the impending obsolescence of human labor power, as well as a recognition that capitalism, even if it no longer requires workers, does need consumers. Similar developments were apparent in Europe. Indeed, it was easy to believe during those years that while we could not expect the Center Left to lead the way to a postcapitalist future, we might be able to rely on it to create a safe space in which a relatively peaceful, albeit painfully protracted, transition might be organized.

It turned out, however, that other processes were at work. One critical result of the crisis was the effective liquidation of investment banking as an autonomous fraction of financial capital. While by no means consistent in its commitment to humanistic principles, outside of those elements in the bourgeoisie which had “retired” into philanthropy, investment bankers represented the closest thing to a conscious leadership within the bourgeoisie, organizing and directing, in so far as capitalism permitted, the centralization and allocation of resources through the capital formation and investment process, something which permitted at least some attention to human development and civilizational progress. This was a critical change in the structure of the bourgeoisie, as it lost its principal architectonic fraction, or at least subordinated it to commercial banking, which is less driven by relationship building and negotiation and more driven by market forces. The liquidation of investment banking represents a major step towards the emergence of Capital as an autonomous power, independent of the bourgeoisie.

Second, ever larger segments of the bourgeoisie, perhaps half-conscious that the dependence of Capital on labor was coming to an end, were busy finding ways to “slough off” their responsibilities to humanity. While the mass line of the Right evolved along religious, social, and ethno-nationalist conservative lines, its leadership migrated from right neoliberalism through libertarianism and objectivism (the doctrine taught by Ayn Rand) towards what has come to be known as neo-reaction or the Dark Enlightenment. The key break here was, on the one hand, a recognition that libertarian policies would never consistently be applied in a democratic setting and, on the other, that in the long run (given the impending obsolescence of human labor) democratic forms of legitimation were no longer necessary. The result was the evolution of the Republican Party in the US from the aggressive “right neoliberalism” of Reagan and the “compassionate conservatism” of the Bushes, itself compromised by the growing weight of the extractive sector in the party, through the Tea Party and ultimately to the alt-right and the Dark Enlightenment.

While in the past right neoliberalism had been based especially in the lower technology, lower skilled, lower wage sectors of capital, we now began to witness an emerging schism within the higher technology sectors of the bourgeoisie. Up until now information technology had largely served the information sector proper (entertainment) which in turn depends on selling its products to a mass, working class audience. It has thus tended to be fairly progressive, favoring investment in ecological integrity and human development and supporting at least a minimum social safety net, with some beginning to explore a possible basic minimum income. Now, however, as information technology advances towards creating an “internet of things” and large scale automation of skilled as well as unskilled human labor, a section of the high technology bourgeoisie, which has always been tempted by libertarian ideas, has moved sharply to the right, embracing right-transhumanism and the Dark Enlightenment. This trend is joined by elements in the biotechnology sector which are attracted to the neoracist Human Biodiversity trend.

While it is tempting to understand these developments as neofascist, there are important differences. Fascism mobilized racist, nationalistic, religious, and even democratic themes in order to mobilize and militarize the population in order to conquer or defend colonial empires at a time when this was a precondition for capitalist stabilization. Hitler, to be sure, went further, actually exterminating people he could have exploited, inaugurating a properly thanatic politics. What we are witnessing now is the obsolescence of both human labor and human capitalists and the thanatic character of the Right is now constitutive of its identity, even if it has thus far avoided explicit calls for the extermination of surplus populations.

There is also a very significant element within the scientific and technical intelligentsia which is moving to the Right. Transfixed by the long term promise of transhumanism and by the short term hope that they can escape into the bourgeoisie simply by means of issuing their own cryptocurrencies, these elements are gradually shifting their allegiance from humanity towards the incipiently intelligent technologies they have helped create.

Among the working classes the impending obsolescence of human labor has led, not surprisingly, to increasing desperation. But this desperation takes very different forms among different strata and fractions of the working classes, with sharp lines of demarcation especially along ethnic lines, with also very significant cleavages along the lines of gender and generation.

The question of just why workers do not behave the way historical materialism says they ought to –supporting a socialist or some other transition toward communism– or, more broadly at least in ways which reflect their immediate material interests, but instead time and time again are drawn towards right-wing parties and movements, is a locus classicus of social theory generally and critical theory in particular. But there is, in reality, no mystery here. The alienation of labor is a real alienation and Marx made a very significant error in not accounting for its impact on the actual political orientation of the working classes. While there are periods and conjunctures in which workers can be drawn to the left, there is a secular trend, matching the extent of the commodification of labor power, towards the formation of what Erich Fromm (Fromm 1941, 1947) called “unproductive orientations,” authoritarian, marketing, hoarding, etc. While the way in which Fromm formulates the problem varies from one context to another, the fundamental idea is simply that families socialize their children in order to survive in the society in which the actually live. In a capitalist society this requires both what he calls a marketing orientation –the ability to constantly sell oneself– and an element of authoritarianism or sado-masochism: the ability to submit to those in authority while dominating subordinates, and to identify with and take pleasure in both roles. The former orientation is more common among the bourgeoisie and petty bourgeoisie and among the more privileged, only semiproletarianized strata of the proletariat; the latter is more common among those who have only one thing to sell: their labor power. What we are seeing today, as at several past conjuctures (such at that leading up to the emergence of fascism in the 1920s and 1930s) is simply an intensification of this dynamic.

There are, however, dimensions of the dynamic which Fromm did not address. First, the authoritarian personality, while it has specifically capitalist forms, long predates capitalism and is a legacy of the emergence of warfare and conquest –and thus of the world historical defeat of the female sex. The authoritarian personality is, in other words, the patriarchal personality par excellence, focused on replacing living, organization relationships with dead order based on domination and submission (Daly 1984). While there are certainly plenty of women who share these authoritarian and patriarchal traits, this is why the Right is stronger among men than among women.

Second, the specifically capitalist form of the authoritarian personality is very much bound up with race and ethnicity. Specifically, it is connected with the mobilization of a secularized version of the Protestant Ethic to hierarchizes ethnic groups based on their productivity and on what I have elsewhere called the “Lockean Exception” which criminalizes African Americans and increasingly undocumented immigrants (Mansueto 2016b). Those who are have historically had something to sell, and thus feel themselves to be “productive,” take it as a sign they they and others like them are among the “elect,” if not in a theological then at least in a biological or cultural evolutionary sense. Those who do not are regarded as potentially or actually criminal and thus subject deportation, mass incarcertaion or, apparently, even summary execution.

This is not to suggest than an identity centered on productivity cannot be mobilized from the Left or Center as well as the Right. It was to this identity that the old Socialist and Communist Parties appealed, and it is no accident that in the United States between 1894 and 1945 they did so more successfully among Jews and Catholics than among Protestants and among German and Scandanavian Lutherans than among Calvinists. These traditions value work and productivity but take it as sign of service to the community rather than of individual election. And of course the prolonged process of organizing which created the immigrant mutual benefit societies, labor movement and the Socialist and Communist Parties inflected the meaning of this identity in a way which mobilized it not just in service to the Common Good in general, but in service to the struggle against capitalism.

We see a Centrist mobilization of this identity, but with much deeper concessions to the Lockean Exception in Bill Clinton’s appeal to those who “work hard and play by the rules.” And we see how quickly the identity can be reconfigured with rightist political valence in Mitt Romney’s appeal in 2012, to “makers” as against “takers.” In 2012 this appeal was not credible enough to grant the Republicans victory, but in 2016, with the liberal bourgeoisie moving to the left along a trajectory determined by the obsolescence of human labor and thus of the working class, the Democratic Party had little to offer non-intellectual workers at the level of meaning and identity. The Republicans, on the other hand, who since 1968 had been deploying a mass line centered on covert appeals to race, were able to use far more explicit appeals in 2016 to capture much of this vote.

What has happened to strengthen the political salience of the authoritarian personality? As the commodification of labor power proceeds there has been a gradual erosion of the nonmarket institutions which sustained alternative identities. There was also a sustained rightwing assault on one of the most important of these institutions –the Catholic Church– which in the 1960s had become one of the most powerful strategic reserves for the Left

The destruction of the mutual benefit societies and the European immigrant communities in particular by the Second World War and the suburbanization which followed, and of the labor movement by neoliberalism effectively undid this progressive mobilization of the working class identity centered on productivity.

In this sense, it was not “economic anxiety” but rather the racist and misogynist identities which had developed among working class men, fundamentally as a result of the alienation resulting from the commodification of labor power, but intensified and mobilized by 40 years of cultural warfare which pulled this sector to the right. That this is the case is evident in the fact that the confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh has energized the mass right as much as it has energized the mass left. There are actually millions of people out there who want to reassert patriarchal controls over women and keep African Americans from the polls and they constitute a ready constituency for Capital as an autonomous power and for its allies within the bourgeoisie anxious to begin excluding ever large elements of humanity from civil society preparatory to annihilation or at least an effective end to subsidies for those who are no longer “useful.”

One of the great tragedies of these developments is that the challenges humanity faces in the coming period actually provide very broad scope for those with authentic civilizational-conservative or perennialist/traditionalist sensibilities. Indeed, the world envisioned by the Dark Enlightenment has no place for the cultivation of human excellence, intellectual, moral and spiritual, and may have no place for humanity at all. If it has a place for God it is only a God which is built technologically at the cost of uncountably many civilizations and uncountaby many intelligent species. What the Right has done to authentically conservative political parties and cultural institutions, turning them into here vehicles for racism and misogyny and “sloughing off” the sense of responsibility for those who are weak or excluded which was always part of the conservative identity ought to fill true conservatives with rage.

We have, however, also witnessed the emergence of some new tendencies on the Left.
These can, broadly speaking, be grouped into two principal trends which overlap in practice but which ultimately carry very different civilizational agendas. There has, first of all, been resurgence of interest in what its proponents call “democratic socialism” but which is quite different from both traditional social democracy and the left-neoliberal “Third Way.” It differs from the first in that its base is not in the industrial working classes but in the proletarianized and lumpen-proletarianized intelligentsia, especially the so-called “millennial” generation, frustrated by the growing difficulty of both doing meaningful work and earning an living (and for some of them, even of earning a living). Their profound anger at the older “baby-boom” generation notwithstanding, this group faces many of the same frustrations their parents did in the 1970s and 1980s. Indeed, both the youth movement of the 1960s and the renewed activism of the millennial generation represent fundamentally movements of resistance to the proletarianization of the intelligentsia. Historical amnesia in this area, with respect both the just cause represented by student and ex-student movements and their utter inability to act effectively on their own, seems to be condemning us to repeating history, each time as an increasingly bizarre farce.

There are, however, some differences between the situation of marginalized intellectuals in the two generations. First, the emergence of a mass information and technology sector gentry and the associated “gentrification” of technologically and culturally creative districts, as well as a massive the emergence of new technologies which have become necessary for full social participation, have raised the bar regarding what constitutes a subsistence income and has made it more difficult for marginalized intellectuals to survive and do their work. Second, the process of proletarianization of the intelligentsia is far more advanced. Where 30-40 years ago marginalization meant living very simply and without a real possibility of settled family life while waiting for a tenure track academic position or for sufficient recognition to make a living as a working artist, today it is quite possible to end up homeless or simply die, most often from lack of adequate health insurance.

As a result, where the generation of 1968 and its younger siblings tended towards revolutionary spontaneity and then towards revolutionary vanguardism, the millennial generation tends towards classical maximalism: attempting to achieve in the short term by electoral means radical reforms, such as free health care and higher education, or even a minimum basic income, for which the Left has struggled in vain for generations. The reason for this is simple: they need these reforms and, unlike the other social sectors which need them even more, they are sufficiently well educated and sufficiently free from bourgeois hegemony to know it. But this does not make the demands any more realistic or timely or strategically appropriate.

What the new “democratic socialist” trend fails to understand is that while their demands are legitimate in principle, and while they will energize elements of the working classes which have been disillusioned with left neoliberalism, they will repel other sectors of the population for whom they represent a surrender to the reality of the own obsolescence or an acknowledgement that they are no “better” than those who have already been declared obsolete.

It is difficult to adjust to the fact that reforms one really does need will not be coming in one’s lifetime, and that life will always be not just difficult but increasingly impossible. But that adjustment is the precondition for developing a revolutionary/civilizational perspective which simply assumes that one’s own life, and most likely that of one’s children and children’s children, was already over long before they started, and that the only way to find meaning is consecrate oneself to a longue duree process of social transformation (and conservation) the realization of which we will not live to see.

The other trend which as emerged is essentially the descendant of the “new social movements” which emerged in the 1960s and 1970s, and which organized around ecology, gender, race, and ethnic identity. There are, however, important changes. The progress of climate change and the hardened resistance to corrective measures on the part of the Right, coupled with at least some evidence that it may already be too late to address the problem, has, to a certain extent, mainstreamed more radical forms of ecologism, many of which question the capacity of the Earth to carry anything like its current population. This tends to produce a soft apocalypticism, with more and more people looking to a transition by civilizational collapse or decadence rather than by revolution or reform. (On this distinction see Mansueto 2010).

There have, of course, been transitions by collapse (the crisis of the Late Bronze Age) and by decadence (the transition from Hellenistic Roman to European Christian civilization) and they have not always been a bad thing in retrospect. But advocating such a transition, especially when that advocacy is informed by ecologistic doctrines which could be mobilized to support massive reductions in the population of the planet is deeply problematic. .

Gender struggles have also changed. Specifically, the focus of the struggle has shifted. What was a critique of patriarchy aimed at liberating women has become largely a struggle for the free expression of diverse gender identities and sexual orientations. While a critique of rigid gender identities can contribute to the critique of patriarchy, and indeed has always been integral to the women’s movement, there is a real danger that women and the foundational role of patriarchy in the historic instrumentalization of humanity, will be lost.

While the main stream of the women’s liberation movement, focused on reproductive rights (which are the condition of the emancipation of women) and on resistance to sexual violence (which makes the formal equality women have achieved under the law and in many professions a lie) persists, the radical feminism, of the past generation, which was focused on transcending the specifically patriarchal construction of gender identity which contributes so much the current authoritarianism, has all but disappeared, giving way to focus on gender fluidity which, while certainly legitimate, does not really have the same strategic significance.

But the single most dramatic development on the left has been the effective identification of the “progressive politics” with “communities of color.” The reasons for this are fairly straightforward: police killings and mass incarceration coupled with the criminalization of migration. When the majority of so called “white” workers vote consciously to support these policies, the principal contradiction of the conjuncture falls inevitably along “the color line.” The difficulty is that this line does not represent a classic structural contradiction. There was certainly a time when the primitive accumulation of capital based on the exploitation of Asian, African, and indigenous American populations was a the major driver of the global economy and racism was both constituted by this structural dynamic and served to legitimate it. But resistance to the worst forms of oppression, such as slavery, could be effective, because the bourgeoisie could not afford to simply kill off the slave population. Contemporary racism, however, while a legacy of this earlier dynamic, no longer serves the interests of capitalist exploitation. It is, rather, more nearly a way of desensitizing the population to an agenda of the total exclusion and possible annihilation of a growing “surplus population.” Given its declining need for human labor power, Capital could easily adjust to the loss of “communities of color.” This does not mean that annihilation is an immediate aim of Capital, but it puts communities of color in a weak position strategically.

In this context there has been a tendency, rooted in the reality of what can only be regarded as an existential threat, to understand the conflict between communities of European origin and those of African, Asian, or indigenous American origin as civilizational in character, with ethnic identity often theorized (when theory is not itself dismissed as itself a “European” invention), in what amount to essentialist or semi-essentialist terms Mansueto 2016b). This essentialism is often then moderated by references to “intersectionality,” which recognize the reality of internal divisions along the lines of class and gender. But visions of a possible future for humanity are inevitably framed in identarian terms. Some of these visions are, to be sure quite beautiful and compelling, such as the Afroindigenous futurism which recently reached mainstream popular culture with the film Black Panther. But in the absence of a larger movement rooted in a universal human identity based on our creative capacity, which has been exploited and which is now being discarded by Capital, there is a grave danger of what amounts to a reinstatement of the “clash of civilizations” (really a clash of identarianisms) from the “left.” Communities of color will lose, and once they have Capital will already have annihilated the majority of humanity.

I should note at this point that while the analysis which I have elaborated was developed first and foremost with the United States in mind, the basic patterns are global in character. Russia, China, and India are all dominated by authoritarian parties which mobilize nationalist sentiments to stifle mass dissent and mobilize the population for the accumulation of Capital. In a certain sense Europe and North America are simply falling into what, as global economic polarization declines, has become a global model. Of these regimes, China is the most sophisticated and most dangerous in the long run. This is because China has both a highly trained mass intelligentsia and a vast surplus population, and because the party is developing increasingly sophisticated methods of social control, including a universal social rating system and increasingly sophisticated use of social media. Russia, in a much weaker position ecologically, demographically, economically, and geopolitically is thus more audacious externally and thuggish internally, and is leveraging what remains of the highly sophisticated intelligence apparatus and scientific-technical establishment to try to destabilize the United States and Europe. It does not have a clear path forward out of dependence on its extractive sector. India, of the three, has journeyed least down the authoritarian path, and Indian civilization, for a variety of geopolitical and ethnoreligious reasons, has historically been resistant to the formation of a strong state. But the Bharatiya Janata Party is clearly making a run of it. Dar-al-Islam, while it remains fragmented, has largely purged the democratic stirrings of earlier in this decade. And in Latin America a strong rightist trend is building as the “left” turn of the last decade collapses in its own variety of authoritarianism and corruption.


Given this situation, what are our principal tasks and how do we carry them out?

First, we must build a broad popular front against the Dark Enlightenment and the thanatic bloc it has assembled. Practically speaking this means supporting the Center Left electorally, while making cultivating among the bourgeoisie and petty bourgeoisie a correct understanding of what is at stake. Already significant sectors of the bourgeoisie seem to be searching for a humane solution to the obsolescence of human labor; they need to understand that in the long run they are in a fight for their own existence as well, as Capital realized as an autonomous power subsumed them under its annihilationist project. Within this context we can build support —and struggle pragmatically for— transitional demands such as free health care, higher education, and a minimum basic income. But we cannot make support for these demands a litmus test for collaboration. Indeed, as the stakes become clear, we will likely draw support well beyond the liberal bourgeoisie, including elements of the historic Center Right, especially those from classical liberal, traditionalist and Christian Democratic currents and their equivalents in other spiritual and religious traditions. This same emphasis on the long term agenda of the Dark Enlightenment should also help begin to neutralize its base among the working classes.

Second, we must build a base which actually unites the working classes, including the petty bourgeoisie, the proletariat and, where it still exists, the peasantry around the long range aim of decommodifying labor power and around a short range aim of gradually delinking income from work so as to free up more and more of humanity’s creative potential. It is important to understand that this will require very different approaches with each class fraction and each of many cross cutting social categories, of which gender identity/sexual orientation and ethnoreligious identity are merely the most important. This task has, in turn, both longer range strategic and shorter range operational dimensions.

At the strategic level we are, in effect, looking to build bridges between specific class, gender, and ethnic identities and the communist ideal of a society in which everyone can devote themselves to the full realization of their creative capacity, as they understand it. This last qualification is of the essence. For the intelligentsia it is obvious that our aim in life is creative self-expression through the arts, sciences, interpretive disciplines, or wisdoms. Some intellectuals live off of investment income or are able to earn a living by means of their creative activity and are thus blinded to the ways in which capitalism holds back the full development of human capacities. For those of us who have suffered significant proletarianization, the problems of capitalism are all too clear. But other social categories have found different adaptations to their specific class, ethnic, and gender situations. The traditional petty bourgeoisie, for example, retains a “small business” identity that makes it very skeptical about critiques of capitalism as well as very sensitive to what can often become ham-fisted regulation. Those who work with their hands have developed a strong identity centered around their own productivity, something that in earlier periods would have been relatively easy to mobilize in a socialist or communist direction, but when the argument for communism centers around the impending obsolescence of human labor it cannot help but seem like an attack on the dignity of communism’s historic base. Many working class women identify first and foremost as mothers, and take the suggestion that they should be creative in some other way as an insult. Those who are structurally unemployed and dependent on state assistance, similarly, can be forgiven if they are skeptical about proposals to expand income transfers to those who already have jobs, rather than putting more money where it is most needed —in their pockets. And many suffer from profound trauma caused by marginalization and criminalization and may take decades or even generations to recover their sense of their own creative potential.

There are, I would suggest, roads forward from all these positions, but they require forms of organization which are adapted to each of these groups and engagement which is not, in the first instance, primarily political. This is why engagement through religious institutions, which can play such a powerful role in shaping identities, remains so attractive, though in the current atmosphere there is less and less evidence that religious institutions actually shape beliefs and values, as opposed to people choosing religious communities which share beliefs and values they already hold. Engagement through traditional religious institutions, therefore, will need to be supplemented by the creation of new forms of spiritual community, including forms which speak to those who regard themselves as “spiritual but not religious” and those who have a fully secular identity.

Above all, it is vitally important that we not assume that the creativity of the intelligentsia is the only kind. It may come as surprise to many that Stalin, writing on The Economic Problems of the USSR in 1952 argued that the next step for his country, with basic necessities provided for, was the reduction of the work week so that people could begin sharing in the artistic, scientific, and philosophical creativity which was already being subsidized by the state. The work week was reduced but people did not flock to the museums and universities. Instead they began demanding more consumer goods and –and more vodka. Consumerism is a product of the commodification of labor and —like racism and misogyny— will likely take generations to overcome. But part of the problem was that the forms of creativity being offered were too narrow, especially in the constricted social space of the Soviet Union. Entrepreneurship, craftsmanship, community building, parenting, and simply continuing what might seem like “retro” forms of production, provided they are not profoundly harmful to society, must all be open to the people. Communism is, after all, based on an underlying confidence in the capacity of the people to invent their future. Our role is to teach and organize and cultivate virtue; the people themselves decide what to dot.

At the operational level, we need to articulate an immediate program which can speak to all of the elements we need to unite. Immediate movement to a single payer health care system does not meet this criterion. While it is almost certainly the best alternative for almost everyone, including many of the very privileged, simply nationalizing health insurance would effectively zero out a large part of the investment portfolios of academic, religious, and charitable institutions, as well as pension funds and social responsible investors, who invest in this sector because it is less socially objectionable than, say, arms dealing or tobacco. We need instead to articulate a plan, as many on the left end of the Democratic Party mainstream already have, for a gradual transition that addresses this dislocation. Similarly, free public university tuition for everyone would redistribute the costs of higher education from the relatively privileged workers who get it to the working class as a whole, without actually opening up elite universities to a larger population than they already serve. Indeed, it might seriously undercut the ability of elite universities to extract tuition payments from bourgeois and petty bourgeois families, who conclude that flagship state schools are “good enough” and thus deprive those institutions of the funds they use to provide financial aid, which often amounts to free tuition and even a full ride, to students from low income families. Free community college tuition coupled with expanded student aid and more favorable treatment of private colleges and universities with higher discount rates would, on the other hand, expand access, including access to elite schools, and drive down student debt, without any of the unintended consequences of free public higher education. Expanded housing assistance, including free, permanent basic housing suitable for homeless individuals and families and subsidies to provide guarantees against homelessness would relieve one of the greatest stressors on the working classes while making it less difficult for members of the marginalized intelligentsia to combine marginal employment with creative activity.

The really difficult challenges, however, come in how to confront racism and misogyny, which remain the principal factors pulling the working classes to the right. Here the only effective approach is likely to be long term and strategic, addressing identities at the foundational spiritual level as discussed above. It is not clear how to get “white” workers who “back the blue” and who are energized rather than appalled by the separation of families at the border to support a humane criminal justice or immigration policy. And of course misogyny has its headquarters in the very religious institutions which would otherwise represent our best hope of transforming principles and values.

There is, however, another road, distinct from but complementary to that of a state-led transition based on what amounts to a gradually increasing social wage, and one that allows us to join our strategic and our operational aims. Before capitalism, a very large part of the economy (estimates range from 10% to 40%, depending on the time and place) was controlled neither by feudal lords nor by the emerging bourgeoisie, but rather by academic, religious, and charitable institutions. These institutions were, to be sure, closely tied to the ruling classes and often —though not always— served their interests. While there was certainly considerable corruption, something which was the occasion on constant reform movements (think the Cistercians and Trappists, Dominic and Francis) these elements of the economy were, on the whole, more generously managed than those held by feudal lords and the bourgeoisie and less of the surplus was diverted to luxury consumption. What if, in addition to restoring the Commons, we were also to restore these sanctuaries, restructuring them in a way which reflected and respected the profoundly pluralistic character of our society, and treated the workers they employed as not merely or even primarily a source of labor power, but rather as full members of the community with governance rights and the right to participate in activities of their choice which cultivated their potential? There could be communities rooted in historic religious traditions, but also in secular ideologies such as liberalism, democracy, and communism. While a few might prefer the simplicity of celibacy for their core membership, at this point in history we would need many more which experiment with integrating diverse ways of organizing sexuality, including diverse gender identities and diverse sexual orientations, with a consecrated life and various forms and degrees of community. Some might, like the Benedictines, join a very simple focus on work (though by no means restricted to agriculture) with “prayer” or the pursuit of excellence in whatever religious or secular ideal they upheld. Others might be more focused on transforming the world around them. There could be differing degrees of participation, comparable to the distinction in Catholic religious orders between those who took solemn or simple vows and oblates who merely attach themselves temporarily to the service of a community, those who lived in community and those who lived in “the world,” etc.

This would accomplish a number of things. First, it would both balance the power of the state with a network of ideologically diverse communities with significant economic assets based in different sectors of the economy, and create a network of communities with the capacity, if necessary, to exercise collective self-defense against Capital as an autonomous force and the thanatic agencies it is spawning. Second, it would provide a way of engaging our diverse population in self-cultivation, including a conscious effort to combat racism and misogyny and to heal the alienation generated by the commodification of labor power in a way which speaks to their social conditions, their history, their identity and their traditions.

I have often told young people considering which college or university to attend that it is, in large part, a choice regarding what kind of person they want to become. Today this is a privilege accessible only to the bourgeoisie, the petty bourgeoisie, and the most privileged sectors of the proletariat. And for those whose calling is not in the liberal arts, the liberal professions, or the academy there is very little support for self-cultivation in service to a freely chosen spiritual or civilizational ideal. And almost everyone, even those who become academics, eventually leave the community and live without support for self-cultivation. In a future in which a restored Commons, managed by a democratic state was joined to a network of Sanctuaries, life long participation in a community which helped them cultivate excellence as they understand it —and to decide how they understand it— while not obligatory, would be open to all, with some making a permanent commitment to a particular community and living their lives within it, many more navigating between many or a few communities, charting their own path, and a few founding new communities to support their own creative contributions to the human civilizational project.

It is critical, of course, that these communities be constituted in a way which entails a complete and unconditional donation of resources which are held in what, under feudal law was called “alms,” meaning that they are inalienable, cannot be managed for profit, and that nothing beyond service to the common good as the community and its members understand that can be required in return for it. This represents a sharp rejection of the current trend in philanthropy to favor project over endowment funding, and to require close accountability for results and even a role in managing the organization. Making this turn will require igniting a new movement among the philanthropic bourgeoisie, based on helping them understand that the threat facing humanity faces them as well, and that certainly their most meaningful choice, and perhaps their safest one, is that of refuge in a community in which they become simply ordinary members.


What kind of people and what kind of organizations do we need in order to lead a strategy of this kind?

Those who are to lead this strategy, even at the beginning level, must, first of all, be liberally educated and capable of making rationally autonomous decisions regarding what they believe it means to be human, regarding the social conditions for realizing our humanity, and regarding questions of strategy, operations, and tactics.

Let me be clear: liberally educated need not mean university educated. Earlier generations of the workers movement gave birth to leaders who, generally beginning from craft or popular religious traditions, sought wisdom as vigorously as they did justice, creating a rich autodidact culture linking the popular and high traditions. This is, however, much more difficult today, largely because the artisan and peasant traditions which formed the basis of this autodidact culture have been largely destroyed by the commodification of labor power. But where popular leaders emerge with the requisite capacities, they should be respected for what they are.

Second, building on the base of this liberal education, they must cultivate a metacivilizational and even cosmohistorical perspective. The must, that is, while fully embracing and living a particular way, they must be able to act across the full range of humanity’s spiritual and civilizational traditions, with their deepest and most profound commitment being to humanity as a whole, the complex organization in the universe, and to the power of Being as such.

Third, they must cultivate an unusually broad range of skills, including the capacity teach, toorganize, and cultivate human excellence. At the more advanced levels they must demonstrate real innovation in these areas. While there is certainly some room for specialization, what need above all are comprehensivists who can identify, cultivate, and mentor emerging, established and high level leaders across multiple sectors of society and multiple traditions. This requires not only an organizer’s ability to identify potential leaders and build relationships, but the theoretical depth to engage them around fundamental questions and to help them develop, and where necessary to challenge, their perspectives. It also requires the ability to mentor them spiritually, if not in their own way then at least in their engagement of a civilizationary-revolutionary process and a spiritual project which transcends any particular way and which has its own distinct spiritual requirements.

Finally, they must make a solemn commitment to achieve moral and spiritual as well as intellectual excellence, as they understand it and engage in practices which promote this excellence.

The kind of organization which we need is above all one which can attract, challenge, nurture, and make effective use of people like those we have described. It must be political and spiritual at the same time and should integrate within itself the principal features of a revolutionary cadre organization and a religious order, but with much more respect for the autonomy of its members and much more emphasis on supporting them in their work. Indeed, such an organization might well be more effective if the leadership core, rather than attempting to persuade people to unite around a common strategy instead engaged cadre on voluntary basis in missions and operations they believed in and for which they were well adapted, rather in the way an intelligence service assigns missions to its case officers, though again with more respect of their autonomy. The vast majority of these “missions,” to be sure, would initially be simply identifying, engaging, and cultivating potential leaders, something which would presumably be uncontroversial by anyone attracted to the enterprise to begin with. But as differences arise, there is no reason to stamp them out. The point is not to have a single center which pretends to be right all the time, but rather effective centers which continue to learn and grow.

This organization (or these organizations) would differ from the sanctuaries in which the people take refuge primarily in that rather than rooting themselves in a single spiritual or civilizational tradition, they would operate across traditions and, while recognizing the contributions of each, would serve the higher good of humanity’s spiritual and civilizational progress as a whole. As with the particular sanctuaries, individuals could participate in different degrees in their work, their internal governance, and their community life. They would, in other words, without pretending to “organize and direct” the historical process, take responsibility for guiding, as best they can, the next steps in the human civilizational project.

It is this dedication to the longue duree development of the human civilizational project, whether that development requires the conservation of perennial wisdom and perennial values, the revolutionary transformation of ideals and institutions, or both, which is the mark of a true revolutionary. And we have no greater need in the present period than leaders who at least aspire to this calling.


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2016b “Beyond the Color Line: Rethinking Ethnicity, Empire, and Capital,” Seeking Wisdom, June 2016
___________. 2017. “The Dark Enlightenment: Accelerationism and Traditionalism on the Global Right,” Seeking Wisdom, May 2017
Mansueto, Anthony and Maggie. 2005. Spirituality and Dialectics. Lanham, Maryland: Lexington Books.
Marx, Karl. 1843a/1978. “For a Ruthless Criticism of Everything Existing,” in Marx-Engels Reader, New York: Norton.
———. 1843b/1978. “Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right: Introduction,” in Marx-Engels Reader, New York: Norton.
———. 1844/1978. Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts. New York: Norton.
———. 1846/1978. The German Ideology, in Marx-Engels Reader. New York: Norton.
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———. 1859/1961. Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy: Preface in Fromm, Erich. Marx’s Concept of Man. New York: Continuum.
———. 1867/1977. Capital, Volume One. New York: Vintage.
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Weber, Max. 1918/2004. “Science as a Vocation,” in The Vocation Lectures, trans. by Rodney Livingstone, New York: Hackett.
———. 1920/1958 The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. New York Scribners
———. 1921/1968. Economy and Society. New York: Bedminster.

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Just How Deep Is the State, After All?

The concept of the “deep state” has, since the 2016 US General Election, become one of the principal pivot points of political discourse in the United States. For the Right, it has become a a principal political target encompassing the whole complex of institutions, but especially the the intelligence community, the foreign service, the regulatory or rule making bureaucracy, and for many, the judiciary which, relatively independent of the elected “government of the day”, defends and advances the liberal order. For the alt-Right and more specifically the Dark Enlightenment the “deep state” is, in effect, the political arm of what they call the “Cathedral,” the network of liberal cultural institutions (the academy, especially as the heir of liberal Christianity, and the mass media) and their associated civil society “action arms” which together enforce humanistic norms and hold back the triumph of the the technocapitalist elites or their transhuman succssors.

The Left, meanwhile, usually frustrated by the glacial pace at which the institutions which constitute the supposed Deep State have responded demands for democratic self-determination and liberation from subjection to market forces, now wonders where the Deep State is in our moment of need. Surely there must be someone minding the store …

The term “Deep State” itself originally emerged to describe the “permanent” state structures of developing countries where democratic institutions are weak. Its use was then extended the United States as an amplification of Eisenhower’s idea of the “military industrial complex,” now fleshed out to include elements outside the national security establishment, But the idea itself is very old, though it has been more an aspiration than a term of analysis. Think of Plato’s Nocturnal Council, his “next best” solution to the problem of justice given the difficulty in actually making philosophers kings. Or think of the sages who have advised Chinese emperors for millennia, or of the whole phenomenon of the Brahmanas who make kings and largely rule on their behalf. Monasteries and religious orders have often at least tried to function in a similar capacity.

In its modern form the idea of a deep state is deeply bound up with both absolutism and parliamentarianism. Kings convened star chambers and privy councils to that they could act behind the back of parliament; parliamentarians formed secret societies so that they could conspire against kings. Hegel sought to institutionalize the phenomenon in his “universal class” of bureaucratic intellectuals. Lenin’s vanguard party is, in effect, the aspiration for a deep state wholly devoted to the Common Good which can penetrate or seize control of the nominal state and wield it as an instrument of revolution.

So the idea of a deep state is not just a fantasy of 4chan conspiracy theorists –or, for that matter– of a weak Left hoping someone will rescue us from our current difficulties without requiring any sacrifice on our part. It has a long history as both an analytic category and aspiration of the most advanced elements of the intelligentsia across multiple strands of the human civilizational project.

The question, though, is whether or not anything meeting the description of a “Deep State” actually exists or even can exist and, if it does, what —if anything— it is doing.


At one level the existence of a something like a Deep State is obvious. Of course there is a system of institutions which runs deeper and lasts longer than the government of the day. And of course this includes, at least in common law countries, the judiciary, the independence from electoral oversight of which is fundamental to our Constitution. And of course it includes the intelligence community, which could not do its job without being relatively independent and without becoming a significant power in its own right. Of course there is a vast cadre of career bureaucrats who, in virtue of their social location, have a vested interest in the regulatory and rule making state from which they derive their livelihood. And of course these elements are, in turn, connected to like minded elements in the business community, the academy, civil society, the mass media and the religious institutions. The only real qualification which we need to add is that this State, while “deep” in the sense of actually encompassing a significant sector of our society, is hardly secret or hidden. It is, on the contrary, the product of both intentional, public, legal acts and the operation of well established sociological process. No complex society could not do without a network of such institutions.

Indeed, what we have just described is, in fact, simply the State pure and simple, without any qualification.

This is a concept to which US political discourse, with its naive and shallow but also obsessive devotion to what it calls “democracy” has been singularly allergic. It is certainly possible to have an elected government. But the idea that such a government can then fully control the state apparatus and thus render it democratic is sociologically naive. This is, indeed, precisely the illusion of democracy generally, and social democracy in particular (though Leninism, which imagines that the state can be similarly controlled by a “vanguard party” is also an illusion). The term “state,” in fact, derives from the Latin status rei publicae, the state of public affairs, and has always referred to something deeper, broader, and affected by but never wholly dependent on the actions of the government. In the Middle Ages it came to include of those elements of society which had representation in public councils —the Estates General or the Estates of the Realm— because they were understood to have an inescapable role in affecting public affairs. The King had to consult them because of their autonomous power as actors in the public arena. The state, far from being either an absolutist moi or a democratic nous, is complex, heterogenous, and more a structure than a thing.

The emergence of sovereign nation states which exercise effective command and control over all aspects of life for a territory and its people (as opposed to just military control and the ability to extract tribute, like most pre-capitalist Empires) has led us to forget the true nature of the state and has made “state power” the principal strategic aim of reactionary and revolutionary parties alike, which imagined that they could use the state like a neutral took to carry out their programs. Lenin knew better when, in State and Revolution, he argued that the bourgeois state and would have to yield to new forms of organization, but then ignored his own insights and attempted to use the state as if it were a neutral instrument which could just as well dismantle capitalism as administer it.


This said, there are very serious problems with the idea that the Deep State constitutes a compact, cohesive network which is capable of disciplined, focused collective action over a sustained period of time. It turns out that such cohesion is very difficult to create and sustain –and that it has likely become much more difficult in recent years.

Now there are two principal ways in which the larger group on behalf of which any hypothetical Deep State has been defined. For the Left, the definition is economic. The Deep State, if it exists, is an agency the bourgeoisie. For the Right the definition is cultural. The Deep State is an agency of the “Cathedral.” Let us look at the possibility of Deep State-like networks defined in each of these two ways.

The most developed theory of the ruling class is that advanced by Marx. For Marx, class is determined by relationship to the means of production. Those with enough capital to live off the labor of others –and to pass on to their children the capacity to do so– constitute the bourgeoisie. Those with the capital to work for themselves, but who must still work, constitute the petty bourgeoisie. Those who must sell their labor power in order to survive, no matter how well compensated they may be, constitute the proletariat. But if we are to understand the bourgeoisie as a ruling class (and the petty bourgeoisie and proletariat as potential or aspiring ruling classes) we must consider social and cultural as well as financial capital. Members of the bourgeoisie, in other words, must have the capital required to generate an income that allows them to live comfortably or even luxuriously without working; they must also be able to fund at least a modest presence in and support for civic, political and cultural networks and both have and be able to pass on to their children the kind of education which makes possible broad civilizational leadership.

How much financial capital does this take? Assuming even modest luxury for a family of four requires something like an annual income of $150,000. But we should then add $65,000 annually for private school or university tuition and fees for each of two children and, say, an additional 50,000 to support participation in elite social and cultural activities and to support even modest political and charitable contributions. This comes to an annual income of roughly $330,000. Assuming a very conservative investment strategy designed to conserve capital and thus a modest annual rate of return of 4%, generating an income at this level without working requires capital of $8.25 million. Only about 1.5% of the population has wealth on this scale, or some 625,000 households.

But this is far too large a population across which to create a compact, connected network of the kind necessary to constitute a Deep State. And this is true even if you assume that only a relatively small section of this bourgeoisie constitutes the active as opposed to the sponsoring deep state. This is because there are far too many people with the assets necessary to endow autonomous political and cultural activity for them to be linked in a single even moderately cohesive network. There will always be someone with a different vision and the money to act effectively on that vision –which is precisely what we have seen over the course of recent decades with the rise of rogue, most but not exclusively, right wing funders like the Koch Brothers.

And this is only the beginning. Any subset of the bourgeoisie which attempted to form a cohesive network would be subject to enormous pressures to include members of other networks, whether bourgeois, upper petty bourgeois, or historically excluded to such a degree that the cohesion of their network would be irreparably damaged. Any such networks, in order to effective, are likely to be temporary, local (either geographically or by social sector) and quite limited in their aims.

In this sense, the idea that the bourgeoisie constitutes a “ruling class” which must be “overthrown” is not strictly consistent with historical materialism, however much it was taken for granted by Marx and his successors. Communism, as informed by historical materialist analysis, is an attempt to transform structures and (in the context of my generalization of the theory as a dialectical sociology) ideals. If there is a target it is Capital, which is emerging as an autonomous power which even the bourgeoisie cannot control.

But what about the possibility of a Deep State constituted on a basis other than class, i.e. a Deep State which is is the instrument of what the Dark Enlightenment calls the Cathedral? This is, in fact, even more preposterous than a Deep State constituted by class. It is, of course, possible to simply group together everyone who disagrees with you and trace out a few loose historical connections between them, but that hardly demonstrates the existence of a cohesive network. Indeed, the idea that liberal, democratic, and socialist humanism are simply secular derivatives of Christianity is simply an old Nietzschean trope and whatever truth it may have has never prevented the various members of this supposed Cathedral from making war on each other. Indeed, look at the sharp contradictions within the Democratic Party at precisely the moment when, were there a true Deep State, one would think unity would be most rigorously enforced.

But what if we move away from the ideological orientation of the supposed Cathedral and define it instead as a network defined by shared social and cultural capital? Once again, there are senses in which it is more or less obvious that elite networks constituted by social and cultural capital and which have a powerful presence in political and cultural institutions do in fact exist. At the same time, these elites have changed in significantly in composition over the past 50 years. Access to elite universities and elite careers such as the academy, diplomacy, the officer corps, and the intelligence community have opened up enormously since the Second World War. And they have done so, in significant measure, with the support of the old elites which historically staffed them. Capital is by nature global and cosmopolitan and seeks out the best talent available. But something significant is lost as a result of this democratization. When all of the members of the diplomatic corps or the intelligence community, for example, came from a small network of families which all knew each other, trust was easy to come by. Select someone from your own network who is reasonably trustworthy and there is a good chance that you will be able trust them. If they stray too far they will have to deal with something far more effective than legal sanctions: the wrath of the family on which their endowments depend. Select people from another ethnoreligious community entirely who takes their recruitment as proof that the system really is as open and democratic as it pretends to be and chances are that first time you have to ask them to do something … deep statist … and at least one of them is going to bolt. And one is all it takes. And of course they will begin to take members of the old elite with them. So even if you have a strong elite network and it has significant power there are real constraints. Even elite networks can’t do just anything they want. And especially if you are going to do something difficult and controversial, it is best to stay as close to legal norms as possible, even if it takes much longer.

Indeed, one of the principal conclusions suggested by this analysis is that the defining feature of the present period is not so much the concentration of wealth and power, but rather its dispersal. This might seem counterintuitive given the solid evidence that at least in the US inequality has been increasing, but in fact these are two distinct questions and the trends may even be related. “Dispersal of wealth and power” in this context means simply an increase in the number of people who have sufficient wealth to free them up to devoted themselves significantly to political and cultural activity and who have the resources to employ others —or technology— in service to their agenda.


All of which brings us to the current situation. Are there networks, almost certainly defined by their relationship to capital, financial, social, and cultural, working to defend the liberal order against a very serious assault? Absolutely. Are they powerful? Let’s hope so. But the idea that they either constitute a compact power unto themselves or that they are the instruments of some even more powerful hidden force is not only unfounded; it is preposterous.

What are the strategic implications of this analysis?

First, it is in our interest to support the the liberal resistance to Trump as vigorously as we can, while preparing for what we will do if it fails. We should support the liberal resistance because the liberal order creates for us the best realistically possible terrain on which to organize for a future, possibly even with the support of elements within the bourgeoisie, who recognize the danger presented by the emergence of Capital as an autonomous power and the challenges presented by climate change, the technological obsolescence of much human labor power, the limitations of the nation state in a global ecology and economy, and the emptiness of the consumer society. We need to be prepared for its possible failure precisely because the liberal order has already been severely damaged, especially along the dimensions of respect for the rule of law and the integrity of the (non-market) institutions which are the condition for the principled, virtuous exercise of freedom.

Second, our principal tasks, whether the liberal resistance is sucessful or not, remain the same: cultivating a new civilizational ideal centered on the full development of human capacities which we can counter pose to the technocratic secularism which is the organic ideology of Capital as an autonomous power and creating the ecological, technological, economic, political and and cultural conditions for the realization of that ideal. And this means longue duree, civilizational and Institutional organizing: identifying, cultivating, mentoring, and deploying high value civilizational leaders and building, conserving, and transforming institutions. But more on that in my next post …

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The Problem of Communism, the Contradictions of Historical Materialism, and the Contributions of the Frankfort School

Humanity seems, once again, poised to turn the gate of hope into a valley of despair. The material conditions for a genuinely human life, in which all of humanity is gradually freed by technological progress from the burden of the necessary labor of merely reproducing social life, and set free to create and explore, have at long last begun to mature. And it is just precisely at this moment that the people seem most ready to sacrifice everything, including their hard won freedom, and the capacity for democratic, collective self-determination, for the opportunity to sell their labor power, fueling support for the Dark Enlightenment and its paradoxically populist ethnonationalist/social/religiousconservative base, making a fascist resurgence a clear and present danger.

It would be easy to write off this phenomenon as driven by economic necessity. We have driven down the demand for human labor power, but have not found a way to share the wealth created by industrial and information technology. Perhaps it is must a matter of redistribution? This is clearly the answer of the new populist left, represented by parties and movements such as Podemos, Syrizia, La France Insoumise, Our Revolution, and, to the extent that it can still be regarded as having a significant “left” membership, the Italian Cinque Stelle.

But history suggests that the problem is not so simple. Rising standards of living for the people, whether the product of social liberal or social democratic reforms or socialist revolution have not, by and large, led to demands for the decommodification of labor power, but simply to increased levels of consumption or when, as in the Soviet Union, investment was directed towards continued civilizational progress rather than individual consumption, stagnating productivity and rising absenteeism.

There is, in fact a well defined body of theory addressing this problem. Indeed, it is the problem of communist theory, and bears on both political strategy and on what has historically been called “socialist construction,” the process of creating, under communist leadership, the conditions for the decommodification of labor power.

This paper will analyze in some depth the development of this debate, beginning with Marx, looking at social democratic and communist contributions, and concluding with a look at arguments within the Frankfurt School, for which this was, in a sense, the fundamental question. I will conclude by arguing that the failure of the communist movement to find a way forward notwithstanding, decommodification is in fact possible. I will conclude by looking briefly at how we need to proceed in this regard.

What is Communism?

It is important, to begin with, to acknowledge a fundamental ambiguity within the socialist and communist movement regarding its ultimate aim. There is, on the one hand, a very strong trend running through both social democratic and communist theory which understands socialism as first and foremost a way of resolving the economic contradictions of capitalism in order to unleash the development of the productive forces –what Samir Amin calls the “economistic” reading of Marxism and what Maoism called the “theory of the productive forces” (Amin 1978/2010, 1979/1980, 1988/1989). This emphasis on the development of the productive forces has some basis in Marx’s work.

…it is only possible to achieve real liberation in the real world… by employing real means… slavery cannot be abolished without the steam-engine and the mule and spinning-jenny, serfdom cannot be abolished without improved agriculture, and… in general, people cannot be liberated as long as they are unable to obtain food and drink, housing and clothing in adequate quality and quantity. “Liberation” is a historical and not a mental act, and it is brought about by historical conditions, the development of industry, commerce, agriculture, the conditions of intercourse (Marx 1846/1932)

The task of developing the productive forces is, furthermore, not unrelated to the humanistic and emancipatory aims of communism. On the contrary, the argument runs, we must transcend scarcity if we are to decommodify labor power and set humanity free from necessary labor (production of the means of subsistence) and exploitation (the creation of the surplus which supports the unproductive luxury consumption of the ruling classes) and allow human creativity to flourish. In practice, however, this communist “parousia” has been repeatedly postponed and actually existing socialism has focused, with only few exceptions (themselves very problematic, for reasons we will come to understand) on promoting scientific, technological, and economic. progress. Give the trajectory of both the Soviet Union and China there is a very strong case to be made that historic socialism, far from being a transition to communism, is actually a strategy for capitalist development in countries on the periphery of the capitalist world system, which lack external colonial empires to exploit and which must therefore use a strong state to carry out primitive accumulation through forced collectivization which maintaining sufficient support among the people to ensure political stability.

There are, however, other texts in which Marx seems to argue that simply resolving the internal contradictions of capitalism by the nationalization of industry and unleashing the development of the productive forces, is at best a very ambiguous first step towards communism.As Marx makes clear in his manuscript on Private Property and Communism the abolition of private property is,

in its first form only a generalisation and consummation of it [of this relation]. As such it appears in a two-fold form: on the one hand, the dominion of material property bulks so large that it wants to destroy everything which is not capable of being possessed by all as private property. It wants to disregard talent, etc., in an arbitrary manner. For it the sole purpose of life and existence is direct, physical possession. The category of the worker is not done away with, but extended to all men (Marx 1844/2009).

This does, indeed, look like a rather sharp indictment of historic socialism, in which the proletarian condition became essentially universal while inequality, while restricted, was far from being abolished.

On the contrary, whatever Marx said or believed about the material (technological) conditions for communism, he is quite clear that communism itself consists in the decommodification of labor power. In order to understand why this condition is so essential, we need to situate it in the context of Marx’s larger analysis which, we must remember, is a critique not just of political economy but of “religion” and of philosophy which claimed to have grasped religion’s inner, rational truth (as well as of the French democratic and socialist revolutionary experience, cf Lenin 1913/2008). And while the Marxist critique of philosophy is usually understood as a critique specifically of Hegel, there is good reason to trace the roots of the tradition which Marx critically engages back to Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, and especially to the medieval Jewish, Christian, and Muslim commentators on Aristotle, a connection which drew the focused attention of a handful of Soviet scholars in the late 1950s and early 1960s (Dahm 1987:94).

I have traced out the lineage which leads from the Radical Aristotelians of medieval Europe, through Gersonides and Spinoza, up through Kant, Hegel, and Marx in other contexts (Mansueto 2010b). Here I just summarize. According to Aristotle, the aim of human life was the cultivation of intellectual and moral virtue. This was theorized by the Jewish and Muslim commentators of the middle ages as achieving identity with the Agent Intellect, the collective intelligence which governs earth and the entire sublunar sphere, something which was increasingly understood by later Averroists such as Dante Alighieri and Marsiglio of Padua as involving a collective, historical dimension. We achieve identity with Agent Intellect through civilizational progress.

Christianity, however, suggested a further possibility: actual theosis, or identity with God. This was, to be sure, understood by the Church as the product of grace, which created capacities which transcend those natural to humanity, and was understood as an accidental perfection rather than a substantial transformation. In effect, by coming, with the help of grace, to love God for God’s own sake and with God’s own love, humanity became connatural with God, a state known as caritative wisdom (Mansueto 2010b), so that in the late middle ages the tension was between the Radical Aristotelians, who sought identity with the Agent Intellect through the human cultivation of virtue and through inner worldly civilizational progress, the Thomistic Center which affirmed the value of this project, but stressed that it was subordinated to the higher goal of full theosis which was possible only through grace and caritative wisdom, and the Augustinian “right” which stressed the priority of faith and of submission to the divine will (this latter tradition leading eventually, by way of Scotus and Occam into the Reformation) . But somewhere between the Latin Averroists and Spinoza the distinction between identity with the Agent Intellect and full theosis dropped away, and we begin to see the emergence of an ideal centered on full theosis by means of innerworldly civilizational progress. This ideal is most clearly stated by Hegel.

The divine spirit must interpenetrate the entire secular life: whereby wisdom is concrete within it, and carries the terms of its own justification. But that concrete indwelling is only … ethical organization (Hegel, G.W.F. 1830/1971 3: 552).

This divine spirit is ultimately embodied, for Hegel, in a state which integrates liberal, democratic, feudal, and monarchic elements (with the church, since the divine has fully interpenetrated the secular, now an arm of the state) with a hidden architectonic cadre in the “universal class” of civil servants of which the university based sapiential intelligentsia is the core.

When Marx, following Feuerbach, takes the criticism of religion as “the beginning of all criticism” he is, in fact, embracing this aim of theosis, and making an argument regarding the conditions for its realization. Transcending religion is a first step, but only a first step. If the divine spirit can be realized in the secular order then there is no longer a need for religion as a separate institution. This is not because the aims of religion are wrong, but because religion seeks to realize these aims in the wrong place and in the wrong way.

Religion is the fantastic realization of a human essence that has yet to attain its true realization.

Man, who sought a superhuman being in the fantastic reality of heaven and found nothing there but a reflection of himself, will no longer be inclined to find a mere nonhuman semblance of himself where he seeks and must seek his true reality.

But Marx goes one step further. While for Hegel it is enough for “the divine spirit to interpenetrate the entire secular world, wherein it becomes conscious of itself,” in the state, for Marx

The task of history is thus to establish the truth about this world once the otherworld has proved illusory. The immediate task of philosophy, which is in the service of history, is to unmask human self-alienation in its secular forms now that it has been unmasked in its sacred forms. Thus the critique of heaven is transformed into a critique of earth, the critique of religion into the critique of law, and the critique of theology into the critique of politics. (Marx 1843/2009)

More specifically, for Marx, it is necessary to transcend the alienation of the specific capacity which links the human essence to the divine, i.e. to Being as such: our labor power. And this alienation is a result of the commodification of labor power, or the wage relation

This fact expresses merely that the object which labor produces – labor’s product – confronts it as something alien, as a power independent of the producer. The product of labor is labor which has been embodied in an object, which has become material: it is the objectification of labor. Labor’s realization is its objectification. Under these economic conditions this realization of labor appears as loss of realization for the workers; objectification as loss of the object and bondage to it; appropriation as estrangement, as alienation. (Marx 1844/2009)
Transcending this alienation results in nothing less than the effective deification of humanity.

Communism as the positive transcendence of private property as human self-estrangement, and therefore as the real appropriation of the human essence by and for man; communism therefore as the complete return of man to himself as a social (i.e., human) being – a return accomplished consciously and embracing the entire wealth of previous development. This communism, as fully developed naturalism, equals humanism, and as fully developed humanism equals naturalism; it is the genuine resolution of the conflict between man and nature and between man and man – the true resolution of the strife between existence and essence, between objectification and self-confirmation, between freedom and necessity, between the individual and the species. Communism is the riddle of history solved, and it knows itself to be this solution. (Marx 1844/2009)

Humanity’s essence is, in other words, nothing less than existence, or Being as Such: what the dialectical tradition has understood historically to be God. Religion seeks the realization of this essence beyond history, in a mystical union with the divine. Philosophy, by which Marx means the tradition of Radical Aristotelianism which reaches from the Latin Averroists through Spinoza and Hegel, up to his own work, teaches us to seek it in this world. Liberal philosophy sought deification in the rationally autonomous individual. Democratic philosophy sought deification in the democratic state. Communism seeks it in human creativity itself, liberated from the chains of commodification.
How do we get there?

But if Marx is clear that communism consists not in collectivization of the means of production in order to unleash the development of the productive forces, but rather in the decommodification of labor power, he is much less clear on how we get there. Marx, to be sure, wanted to distinguish his communism from that of the utopians who developed complex schemes with little regard for social conditions. A scientific socialism, he believed, had to be rooted in the material conditions of social life. But while Marx discovered contradictions within capitalism which would –or at least could– lead to socialism, he never succeeded in identifying conditions which would lead from socialism to communism, or even sustain a strong mass base for the decommodification of labor power.

This is apparent from a reading of the first section of the Communist Manifesto, where Marx makes his first attempt at analyzing the contradictions of capitalism and at identifying the stages in the development of the class struggle.

A similar movement is going on before our own eyes. Modern bourgeois society, with its relations of production, of exchange and of property, a society that has conjured up such gigantic means of production and of exchange, is like the sorcerer who is no longer able to control the powers of the nether world whom he has called up by his spells. … It is enough to mention the commercial crises that by their periodical return put the existence of the entire bourgeois society on its trial, each time more threateningly. In these crises, a great part not only of the existing products, but also of the previously created productive forces, are periodically destroyed. … The productive forces at the disposal of society no longer tend to further the development of the conditions of bourgeois property; on the contrary, they have become too powerful for these conditions, by which they are fettered, and so soon as they overcome these fetters, they bring disorder into the whole of bourgeois society, endanger the existence of bourgeois property … (Marx 1848/2000)

As a result of these contradictions, the proletariat begins to organize:

The proletariat goes through various stages of development …

These stages are, according to Marx, 1) sabotage, with the rage of workers directed against the machines which are replacing them rather than Capital which owns the machines; 2) trade unionism, organized collective bargaining for improved wages and working conditions, and finally, 3) the formation of a workers party which vies for political power.

Even so, Marx is clear that this is not enough. Workers will not by themselves come to understand the need to transcend the commodification of labor power. Thus the need for philosophy.

As philosophy finds its material weapon in the proletariat, so the proletariat finds its spiritual weapon in philosophy … The liberation of Germany will be the liberation of man. The head of this liberation is philosophy, its heart is the proletariat. Philosophy cannot be realized without abolishing the proletariat, and the proletariat cannot be abolished without realizing philosophy. (Marx 1843/2009)

What this means concretely is the creation of an intellectual vanguard.

Finally, in times when the class struggle nears the decisive hour, the progress of dissolution going on within the ruling class, in fact within the whole range of old society, assumes such a violent, glaring character, that a small section of the ruling class cuts itself adrift, and joins the revolutionary class, the class that holds the future in its hands. Just as, therefore, at an earlier period, a section of the nobility went over to the bourgeoisie, so now a portion of the bourgeoisie goes over to the proletariat, and in particular, a portion of the bourgeois ideologists, who have raised themselves to the level of comprehending theoretically the historical movement as a whole …

The Communists … have over the great mass of the proletariat the advantage of clearly understanding the line of march, the conditions, and the ultimate general results of the proletarian movement (Marx 1848/2000)

This, despite various comments on specific political programs at specific historic junctures, is very much where Marx leaves us in terms of a general theory of a transition. He does not explain how we go from the formation of a philosophical vanguard to the decommodification of labor power. That task was left to later commentators.
Historic Socialism

Given the ambiguity in his own work, it should come as no surprise that Marx’s interpreters are sharply divided along two lines of demarcation. Some emphasize the economic, some the political, and some the ideological, cultural, and spiritual conditions for communism, both in building a movement towards socialism and in the process of socialist construction. And among each of these groups some argue that the conditions for creation of a mass socialist movement will develop spontaneously; others emphasize need for conscious leadership.

Thus economistic social democrats (who largely reject the idea of a philosophical vanguard) such as Engels and Kautsky argue that industrialization itself will create a proletarian majority that will then win elections. The resulting social democratic government will then nationalize industry, eliminating the contradictions of capitalism and setting in motion rapid economic development, presumably resulting in an end to scarcity and thus the material conditions for communism. More idealistic social democrats such as Hermann Cohen and Eduard Bernstein, while not discounting economic factors, see socialism as in significant measure the product of a gradual Enlightenment in the Kantian sense.

Similarly, among communists (those who argue for the necessity of an intellectual vanguard), including all who followed Lenin into the Bolshevik faction and those who see Lenin as part of their theoretical heritage, it is possible to identify:

  • those who argue that the basis for socialist revolution lies in the fact that imperialism, while it does not make capitalist development impossible, vastly retards it, creating an opening for a vanguard of professional revolutionaries to seize power by advancing “transitional demands” such as “land, bread, and peace” or national liberation and land reform and
  • those who, following Bodganov, Gorky, and Lunarcharsky (the so-called god-builders; cf Rowley 1978)) understood “conscious leadership” primarily in ideological terms, running what amounted to liberal arts programs for workers at Gorky’s home in Capri, so that an ever larger fraction of the proletariat would come to share the humanistic intelligentsia’s understanding of the “line of march, conditions, and ultimately general result” of the revolutionary project.

But Communists then divided over what to do “after the revolution.”

  • Trotskyists argued that the revolution is permanent and global. After seizing power the party should implement a strategy of primitive socialist accumulation and forced collectivization (even militarization) in order to position technologically, economically, and militarily itself to spread the revolution globally.
  • Stalinists ultimately accepted the theory of primitive socialist accumulation and forced collectivization, but largely because of the need to prepare for war against Germany, arguing that “socialism in one country” was, in fact, both possible and necessary.
  • Bukharin, on the other hand, defended rural demand led strategy in which land reform created peasant demand for manufactured goods, catalyzing industrialization. But Bukharin, who had been close to Bogdanov and the “god-builders” before the revolution, was also keenly aware of cultural and spiritual conditions for communism, and wrote both about the way in which the crisis of capitalism was eroding the ideological basis for socialist revolution and the ways in which Stalin’s strategy of primitive socialist accumulation deformed the party spiritually.

It was out of the Bukharinist “right opposition” that the two great theorists of the cultural conditions for communism emerged. Antonio Gramsci (Gramsci 1948, 1949a, 1949b, 1949c, 1950, 1951, 1954, 1966) developed a complex analysis of the cultural dimensions of class struggle, arguing that successful ruling classes ruled not by coercion (“dictatorship”) or co-optation (“transformism”) but rather by cultural hegemony –by rewriting the cultural rules of the game and by drawing on popular ideological, cultural, and religious traditions as transitional or “linking ideologies” which build support for socialism among those who had not yet achieved a fully dialectical perspective. Mao, on the other hand, focused on the fact that the persistence of commodity relations under socialism reproduced the bourgeoisie economically, politically, and ideologically, and argued for the necessity of “cultural revolution,” which consisted largely in a combination of study with “struggle sessions” and public self-criticism in which cadre were challenged to confess, analyze, and correct their own “petty bourgeois tendencies.”

Rather outside of the stream of “official” historical materialism, but also quite influential, lies “populism,” not in the sense of the amorphous global anti-elitism which has emerged in recent decades on both the right and the left, in many ways recapitulating the broader political culture out of which fascism emerged, but rather the nineteenth and early twentieth century movement which looked not to the industrial proletariat but rather to the peasantry as the leading revolutionary class. These narodniki, as they were called in Russia, argued that capitalist development was impossible in colonial or semicolonial countries, because of the lack of an internal market for manufactured goods (a thesis largely seconded in the later twentieth century by dependency theory) but that the peasant community, with its tradition of redistributional land tenure, created a basis in experience for the transition to socialism. The resulting movements, as Eric Wolf demonstrated in Peasant Movements of the Twentieth Century (Wolf 1969) often drew on religious language and symbolism to articulate their aims. The strategic power of these movements gradually forced the communist movement to reassess the role of both the peasantry and of religion, so that by the second half of the twentieth century significant trends within the communist movement, both on the Gramscian “right” and the Maoist “left” increasingly accepted the peasantry as an equal partner with with the proletariat in the revolutionary process and understood popular religion as at the very least a “bridging ideology” leading (Lancaster 1988) to dialectical and historical materialism or even, increasingly, as integral to the revolutionary project itself (Mansueto 2002a).

This is, in many ways, a very rich tradition of engagement with the problems posed by communist strategy but the very problem it aims to resolve: the alienation, generated by the commodification of labor power, which makes the achievement of communist consciousness difficult at best. But there are some very serious limitations. First, the “solution” to this problem has generally been to draw on the support of those whose labor power, like that of peasants and intellectuals, is not yet fully commodified. No significant trend within the movement ever advanced a strategy for cultivating communist consciousness among full proletarianized workers, wither agrarian, industrial, or intellectual. And even the most advanced attempts to draw on these less commodified and alienated sectors of society as revolutionary base produced limited success at best. While the Latin American Left has proven itself far more resilient than many expected after its decline in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union, they have fall far short of creating the “spiritual conditinos for communism.” Those of us who hoped that the synthesis between dependency theory, Gramscian (or Mariateguista) communism and liberation theology which drove the Latin American Left of the 1970s and 1980s would usher in the New Humanity have, instead, been treated to, among other things, the spectacle of Daniel Ortega parading around in designer glasses imposing classic neoliberal austerity measures on the people who brought him to power.

Second, only one of trend within the communist movement (Maoism) engages directly the impact of the persistence of commodity production after the revolution. And the Maoist approach, reflected in the Cultural Revolution, was more a strategy for containing the effects of commodification (with rather catastrophic collateral damage) rather than for overcoming it. The idea that study (actually the rote memorization of slogans) and struggle (often abusive criticism and self-criticism sessions practiced under less than consensual conditions) could heal the wounds of commodification and cultivate high order intellectual and moral capacities is simply preposterous.

The Hotel Abyss … and Beyond?

Long before the global failure of historic socialism to address the implications of the commodification of labor power for both revolutionary strategy and socialist construction was fully apparent, though, a major school of revolutionary theorists –the Frankfurt School– analyze the problem and its implications thoroughly. Emerging out of the effort to understand why so many workers lent their support to fascism, the school focused its attention on the the complex forms of ideological and cultural domination which characterize capitalist society. The result was not just one but a number of competing theories of the “authoritarian personality” (Fromm 1941, Adorno 1950) which argued that the socialization necessary for survival in a capitalist society produces a working class which is not so much revolutionary as authoritarian. After the war, Erich Fromm went further to argue that even when authoritarian parenting gives way to more permissive models, people in capitalist societies are raised to sell themselves, cultivating a “marketing orientation” in which people quite literally lose themselves and their connection to their underlying creative, social, and sapiential drives (Fromm 1947). Herbert Marcuse (Marcuse 1964) developed a similar argument showing that the ideological apparatus of consumer societies effectively integrated the working classes into the capitalist order, so that it was only the marginalized –ethnic minorities and the humanistic intelligentsia– which were likely to resist.

In the end, however, the Frankfurt School divided sharply, with the majority arriving ultimately at the conclusion that revolution, at least in the sense that Marx had understood, was in fact impossible. Adorno and Horkheimer’s Dialectic of Enlightenment (Adorno and Horkheimer 1944/2002), Adorno’s Minima Moralia (Adorno 1951/2002), and ultimately Marcuse’s One Dimensional Man (Marcuse 1964) refocused the object of criticism from the commodification of labor power to instrumental rationality and technopolitical domination, reflecting an orientation which was as much Heideggerian as it was Marxist, even if Marcuse along had direct connections with Heidegger.

We will explore in another context the social basis and political valence of the apostasy of the humanistic intelligentsia (and much of the religious intelligentsia), even that nominally on the “left” from Marx to Heidegger. For here it is enough to remind readers that Heidegger was a committed NAZI and that his philosophy clearly points towards fascism (Lukacs 1953/1980, Bourdieu 1988/1991, Mansueto 2010b). Of more importance for our current argument is that, whatever its relationship to Heidegger and through him to the very NAZI tradition they were born to resist, the dominant wing of the Frankfurt School ended up promoting despair. As Lukacs put it:

A considerable part of the leading German intelligentsia, including Adorno, have taken up residence in the Grand Hotel Abyss which I described in connection with my critique of Schopenhauer as “a beautiful hotel, equipped with every comfort, on the edge of an abyss, of nothingness, of absurdity. And the daily contemplation of the abyss between excellent meals or artistic entertainments, can only heighten the enjoyment of the subtle comforts offered (Lukacs 1971).

There are, however, two figures close to the Frankfurt School who avoided both refined despair: Walter Benjamin and Erich Fromm. This said they find hope in two very different places. Benjamin effectively rejects the whole project of a scientific socialism in which communism is the product of a more or less necessary process of technological and economic progress and class struggle.

Social democratic theory, and still more the praxis, was determined by a concept of progress which did not hold to reality, but had a dogmatic claim. Progress, as it was painted in the minds of the social democrats, was once upon a time the progress of humanity itself (not only that of its abilities and knowledges). It was, secondly, something unending (something corresponding to an endless perfectibility of humanity). It counted, thirdly, as something essentially unstoppable (as something self-activating, pursuing a straight or spiral path). Each of these predicates is controversial, and critique could be applied to each of them. This latter must, however, when push comes to shove, go behind all these predicates and direct itself at what they all have in common. The concept of the progress of the human race in history is not to be separated from the concept of its progression through a homogenous and empty time. The critique of the concept of this progress must ground the basis of its critique on the concept of progress itself. (Benjamin 1940/2005).

This concept of history, he suggests, is itself, fundamentally hegemonized by the principles and values of Capital itself.

The conformism which has dwelt within social democracy from the very beginning rests not merely on its political tactics, but also on its economic conceptions. It is a fundamental cause of the later collapse. There is nothing which has corrupted the German working-class so much as the opinion that they were swimming with the tide. Technical developments counted to them as the course of the stream, which they thought they were swimming in. From this, it was only a step to the illusion that the factory-labor set forth by the path of technological progress represented a political achievement. The old Protestant work ethic celebrated its resurrection among German workers in secularized form. (Benjamin 1940/2005).

But this is not all. This concept of history is not only inadequate to the task of creating the conditions for communism; it is behind the collapse of social democracy and the rise of fascism.

… the politicians in whom the opponents of Fascism had placed their hopes have been knocked supine, and have sealed their downfall by the betrayal of their own cause … (Benjamin 1940/2005).

This is due to a

:… stubborn faith in progress … in their “mass basis” … (Benjamin 1940/2005).

The struggle against fascism, he suggests, requires an entirely different forma mentis, an entirely different spirituality and above all a new concept of history which is no longer progressive but rather messianic.

History is the object of a construction whose place is formed not in homogenous and empty time, but in that which is fulfilled by the here-and-now … (Benjamin 1940/2005).

The consciousness of exploding the continuum of history is peculiar to the revolutionary classes in the moment of their action … (Benjamin 1940/2005).

Revolutionaries must

… establish a concept of the present as that of the here-and-now, in which splinters of messianic time are shot through … (Benjamin 1940/2005).

Surely the time of the soothsayers, who divined what lay hidden in the lap of the future, was experienced neither as homogenous nor as empty. Whoever keeps this in mind will perhaps have an idea of how past time was experienced as remembrance: namely, just the same way. It is well-known that the Jews were forbidden to look into the future. The Torah and the prayers instructed them, by contrast, in remembrance. This disenchanted those who fell prey to the future, who sought advice from the soothsayers. For that reason the future did not, however, turn into a homogenous and empty time for the Jews. For in it every second was the narrow gate, through which the Messiah could enter. (Benjamin 1940/2005).

It is easy to see why Benjamin would have taken this route. There was even less reason to trust the idea of progress in 1940 than there is now. He was not the only one to argue instead to that “the unity of the poor creates, in certain times and places, an eschatological power” (Silone 1968:31) which is the real foundation of revolutionary hope. But this eschatological power did not appear –and Benjamin committed suicide. It was ultimately an alliance between the progressive sectors of Capital and the Soviet State which defeated fascism, though not without help from the resistance.

The problem with this “eschatological communism” is simple. It divorces the communist project from the real lives and aspirations of the working classes, who are its subject, and makes it quite impossible to advance any kind of revolutionary strategy. It is one thing to reject a concept of history and a strategic orientation which make socialism into a strategy of primitive accumulation –something which also alienates communism from the working classes; it is quite another to to reject strategy grounded into social reality altogether. Eschatological communism channels the energy of the vast majority of its adherents, who are far from messianic themselves, into meaningless symbolic protest, while condemning its best leaders to either suicide or the cross.

Fromm (Fromm 1947) takes a different path. First he has a more complex and nuanced anthropology than Marx. He shares Marx’s view that humanity is defined by our capacity for creative labor and by our sociality, but emphasizes the latter a bit more and is clearer than Marx about our drive to seek meaning. And is clearer than Marx ever was about the underlying contradictions of the human situation. Reading the Paris Manuscripts one gets the impression that Marx actually believed that communism would put an end to all human suffering, spiritual as well as material. Fromm knew better. He was aware that our most profound suffering comes from our finitude and contingency, from the fact that we are aware of the possibility of the Infinite and of Necessary Being, but cannot achieve it. And he situates creative human labor, the formation of challenging and nurturing relationships, and the search for meaning as ways to partially come to terms with this challenge.

Second, drawing on but also radically transforming psychoanalytic theory, Fromm develops a far more nuanced theory of alienation than Marx, arguing that human creativity, sociality, and desire for meaning are channeled by the family during the course of the socialization process in a way which meets survival needs under the prevailing social conditions. This was how he explained the formation of the autohritarian personality under fascism and it is how he explains the enduring hegemony of Capital in advanced capitalist societies. Specifically, his theory of the “marketing orientation” explains the process by which, forced to sell ourselves in order to survive, human beings under capitalism actually lose touch with who they are and what they actually want.

Third, while he does not fully develop this aspect of his theory, Fromm leaves us with a way to theorize the social basis for communism even when we cannot “see” it with the naked eye. That basis is, precisely, humanity’s drive towards creativity, sociality, and meaning. It is something we all share, and in this sense all human beings are ordered towards communism. The principal strategic task of communism thus becomes tapping into this “deep spiritual root” of communism, something which certainly requires conscious leadership but also profound listening, so that we can dulled roots stir and know how, precisely to respond.

Finally (and this is simply to say that he is fully conscious of the philosophical and theological implications of these earlier moves) Fromm also goes furthest in engaging the religious question of any of the Frankfurt School. He does this from the vantage point of the common Jewish heritage which many of them shared. Specifically, he argues that Marxist atheism is just a radical extension of the traditional Jewish rejection of idolatry and of the emphasis on orthopraxis over orthodoxy. It makes very little difference from a Jewish vantage point whether or not God exists. What matters is that we participate in the creative, loving, and wise power which believers have historically called God. In this sense we neither “seek” nor “build” God, to use the language of the old Russian debate; we live God.

I am more inclined that Fromm to argue both that the question of God matters and that it can be resolved (in the affirmative) by dialectical philosophy. But it is not the most important question. On the contrary, Fromm arrives by a pure via negativa so radical that it becomes atheistic at the same conclusion at which most mystics arrive after a journey which takes them through a dialectical ascent, a dark night of the soul, theological illumination, and yet another dark night. Advanced spirituality consists not in knowing that God will be there for us, but in transcending such infantile self-concern and knowing God first and foremost in being God, however partially and imperfectly, in the midst of our own brokenness, for others.
Sanctuary and Commons

So what does this suggest for the way in which we understand —and act— on the challenges of the present period?

First, it should be clear that the problem of the commodification of labor power and the alienation it engenders is the principal contradiction of the communist movement. Communism consists in transcending this commodification and alienation and unleashing human creativity, sociality, wisdom. But the alienation engendered by commodification effectively undercuts the social basis for the communist project.

Second, there has been no shortage of attempts to confront this problem. But none of these attempts have been adequate to the task at hand. Errors on the right (the theory of the productive forces, which relies on technological progress alone to create the conditions for communism) effectively liquidate the communist project; errors and on the left (Maoism) simply repress rather and addressing alienation, with catastrophic, anticivilizational effects. Along the way there have been some promising insights (e.g. from the Frankfort School) and strategic initiatives (Gramsci’s strategy of cultural hegemony), but none have gone far enough.

Third, alienation is best understood as a spiritual problem with a material basis. As such, both the material and spiritual dimensions of the problem must be addressed simultaneously. We are very far from having created the material conditions for transcending commodification entirely, but we can move to restrict it. This means restoring the commons which, while it may not release people from the need to work, or even from drudgery, will at least release them from the necessity of selling their labor power —and will increase their bargaining power when they do. The most sustainable way to do this is by creating autonomous enterprises held by local communities directly or by sponsoring entities at which people have a right to work and from which they have a right to revenue and which have a practice hospitality for those who cannot work  –much like the monastic communities of old. These enterprises might be anything from farms (in rural areas) and community gardens through advanced high technology industrial or information sector enterprises.

At the same time we must make the opportunity for intellectual, moral, and spiritual growth accessible to everyone —and radically disconnect it from the struggle for upward social mobility which has come to define “higher education” —and the promise of salvation which has come to define religion. Art, music, and literature, history, science, and philosophy, theology and worship and contemplative practice, carried out in the context of a community which stretches us, nurtures us, and holds us accountable, are their own rewards, and the first step towards transcending commodification. A restored commons must be be complemented, in other words, by renewed sanctuaries which nurture the capacities through which we participate in the power of Being as such –the power of the divine. We must, in other words, create spiritual “lures” which attract people to the work of seeking wisdom, doing justice, and ripening being.

This does not, to be sure, eliminate the need for political struggle in the more ordinary sense, whether electoral, armed, or otherwise. Now as in the time when Fromm wrote there is a great tide of darkness which we must resist, even at the cost of our lives. Indeed, this work of resistance remains the principal task in the current conjuncture. And beyond that, an increased social wage (free transportation, education, health care, etc.) and a guaranteed basic income funded through steeply progressive taxation would change conditions more rapidly and create a context in which experiments of the kind we have suggested could flourish. But the resistance to the Dark Enlightenment takes place in the context of a broad popular front against fascism in the context of which we find ourselves uniting not just with the progressive sectors of the bourgeoisie, but also with “liberal conservatives” who are not likely to support even partial and indirect decommodification, especially by way of an increased social wage and a guaranteed basic income. Or, as we have already seen in Europe, where they do support such measures, it is with conditions which tend to keep the market pressures on labor, on which the less advanced sectors of Capital depend, in place. Integrating a broad popular resistance to fascism with the work of restoring the commons and renewing our sanctuaries allows us to get around this problem. And it allows us to be engaged now, in the midst of the darkness, in the work of building a future which will make the Hotel Abyss seem like the necrotic place it really is, a future which, even if it falls far short of true communism, much less of full theosis, is full of love and full of life and pregnant with the God who, whether we believe in Her or not, we all desire.

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