The surprising popularity of Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders’ campaign for the Democratic Presidential nomination has led many to believe that a “political revolution” is possible on the basis of a presidential campaign, apart from either conscious political-theological leadership or significant progress in the organization of the working classes, much less any authentic institution building, and without taking into account the broader material and spiritual conditions for such a revolution. This is a dangerous reading of the campaign, because it is leading some on the Left to question whether or not to support Hilary Clinton, the victorious candidate for the Democratic nomination, going into the general election at a time when the alternative is a fascistoid ethnonationalist. But it also reflects a dangerous misunderstanding of the nature of and argument for social revolution, as well as how such revolutions take place and what they contribute –and what they do not– to human development and civilizational progress over the very longue durée.
This paper will focus on the question of what constitutes a social revolution, how such revolutions take place, and how, given a correct understanding of revolution, we should understand the contributions –and weaknesses—of the Sanders campaign, as well as our broader priorities in the present period.
What is Revolution?
The concept of revolution is central to the humanistic secular ideal. This ideal, which emerged out of the Radical Aristotelianism of the late Silk Road Era, and its transformation into liberalism, democracy, and communism, looked to the constitution of a political subject which could make humanity the master of its own destiny and thus carry us across the boundary between contingent and necessary Being, resolving the contradiction between existence and essence and therefore making us, collectively, if not individually, divine. Liberal humanism locates this political subject in the rationally autonomous individual. Democratic humanism locates it in the body of engaged citizens. Communism locates it in the working classes, organized through either a mass or a vanguard political party (Mansueto 2010. 2016a, Marx 1848/1993).
Revolution is the process which constitutes this subject and thus divinizes humanity. It is, in this sense, the secular analog of the diverse axial concepts of enlightenment, redemption (in both the innerworldly sense of the redemption of the land and the constitution of a just society and the otherworldly sense of redemption from sin), and of harmony with the dao which guides the universe. From a secular vantage point revolution is all these things, or at least the means by which they are achieved. From the vantage point of the axial (Jaspers 1953) traditions, the Way of the Seeking Being, the Way of Justice and Liberation, and the Way of Harmony, this is reductive and an error, since the desire to be God which defines humanity can never be fully realized within the limits of spacetime. But even within the context of the axial ways, the concept of social revolution remains meaningful and valuable as a participation in the divine and as a means of creating the institutional conditions for human development, including spiritual development, as well as civilizational progress. While the axial traditions differ in the value they assign to these institutional conditions and to civilizational progress, all recognize their contribution to and participation in the process of spiritual development. This makes a correct understanding of the nature of revolution vitally important whether one is a Hellenist, a Hindu, or a Buddhist, a Jew, a Christian, or a Muslim, a Taoist or a Confucian, a Liberal, a Democrat, or a Communist, or –like more and more people in the present period– a seeker struggling to join two or more of these traditions a part of the longer process of working out a new synthesis and discovering a higher ideal.
We will see as we proceed that the axial traditions can provide important insights which contextualize our expectations of revolution as well as enrich our understanding of what a revolution requires. But to begin with we will focus on the concept of revolution as it functions within the various humanistic secularisms. The concept of revolution does not play a particularly central role in technocratic secularisms, except in so far as historic socialism, by focusing on the technological conditions for communism, has transformed itself into such a secularism, but we will note the significance of the concept for this tradition where it is relevant.
Broadly speaking, the term revolution, within the context of humanistic secularisms, can be used meaningfully in three different ways. The first, and most modest, is the idea of a political revolution in which one social class displaces another as the ruling class in society. This has happened a number of times historically. With emergence of metal technology and of warfare as a strategy of economic development, warlords gained an edge over the largely religious leadership of communitarian and archaic societies. The development first of petty commodity production (around 800 BCE) and eventually of capitalism (after 1500 CE) led to the gradual displacement of warlords by capitalists, on whom the former became dependent for the organization money which funded their continuing wars of conquest. The historical materialist theory of the socialist transition from capitalism to communism presupposed the displacement of the bourgeoisie by the proletariat, though it may well be, as will argue later, that we are seeing instead is the displacement of a bourgeoisie of capitalists by Capital as an impersonal force, perhaps eventually resident in transhuman or posthuman, artificial intelligences (Mansueto 1995, 2010).
The second sense of the term revolution is that of a transformation of the underlying structure of a society from one “mode of production,” such as feudalism or capitalism, to another, such as capitalism or communism. Revolution in this sense is fully theorized only for historical materialism or syncretic traditions which integrate its insights. Social revolution for historical materialism requires a change in the way in surplus labor is extracted, centralized, and allocated for production. A transition specifically from capitalism to communism would involve the decommodification of labor power, so that workers were no longer forced to sell their labor power in order to survive, but rather contributed freely of their creative potential through a process which spontaneously and noncoercively resulted in in the optimum use of everyone’s talents as well as the full creative realization of each individual. Such a state requires technological progress which effectively eliminates scarcity, so that there is no real need for anyone to do anything in particular, and any contribution which an individual makes represents a pure gain for the community above and beyond what it needs to survive and reproduce at its current level of development. It also requires a radical transcendence not merely of selfishness but of any desires whatsoever which might lead an individual to want to act in a way other than that which best promoted the Common Good. Whether or not these two conditions can actually be met, or whether communism remains an ideal which can only be asymptotically approached, and then only over millennia of continued cosmohistorical evolutionary progress, remains open to question.
Socialism was historically understood as a form of transition from capitalism to communism in which the working class, having seized control of the state apparatus, through the mechanism of either a mass or vanguard party, makes that state the principal resource allocator, displacing the capital markets, as well as the ideological apparatus, with the aim of catalyzing the technological progress and/or carrying out the cultural revolution which communism presupposes. Political revolution is thus understood as a step towards, but only a step towards, social revolution at the structural level.
This said, there has been some work in the liberal and democratic traditions aimed at defining the conditions for freedom and democracy which point towards structural conditions. Thus some liberals, such as Locke stress private property as the condition for rational autonomy while others such as Kant stress rule of law and the “enlightenment” which results from liberal education. There is also a large body on research on the structural conditions for democracy: widely dispersed private property, a citizen army based on light infantry, universal suffrage, a strong civil society, strong political parties, a sovereign state structure, widespread liberal education (Fukuyama 2011).
There is, finally, a third and deeper sense of the term “revolution” which I have introduced in my critique of historical materialism. This is a shift at the level of what I have called the spiritual and civilizational ideal: the particular form under which a civilization seeks the global human aim of theosis. The earliest human societies seem to have sought the divine largely though participation in divine creativity through the cycles of life: bearing and raising children, cultivating plants and husbanding animals. The first shift in ideal occurred at the beginning of the Bronze Age, when the idea emerged that at least some human beings could achieve divinity by means of conquest and self-sacrifice. Another such shift occurred with the emergence of the great axial traditions between 800 and 200 BCE, which criticized the sacral monarchic ideal and argued that theosis, to the extent that it was possible or could be approached at all, required authentic spiritual development which was, to be sure, understood differently across the different axial ways. The third great revolution at this level defines the modern or secular era, which attempts to achieve theosis by means of innerworldly civilizational progress, whether technological (pushing back the limits of finitude) or political (by constituting a political subject which makes humanity the authentic master of its own destiny and thus cancels our contingency and resolves the contradiction between existence and essence, contingent and necessary Being).
Of the classical sociologists Weber (Weber 1920/1968) comes closest to theorizing this sort of shift, but he tends to regard it as purely arbitrary: an absolute innovation in ideas captures the hearts and minds of the people and reorders human civilization. He explains neither how spiritual and civilizational ideals are rooted in material reality nor how they point to real transcendental ends.
These senses of the term of revolution represent successively higher degrees of social transformation. Political revolution has historically been valued as a way of undertaking structural revolution (transformation in the mode of production). But this latter is just a change in the means used to realize a civilization’s architectonic ideal.
It should be clear that if the Sanders campaign promises a revolution at all it could only be at the most limited, political level, albeit perhaps as a step towards deeper structural transformation. In order to assess the valence of this claim we need to look at it in the broader context of the ongoing debate about how revolutions take place and specifically the focus, characteristic of all modern secular politics –not only socialist or communist—on the question of state power.
How Do Revolutions Take Place?
There are, broadly speaking, three principal secular theories of revolution. The first, historical materialist answer is that social revolutions take place when the relations of production –the economic structure of a society —become an obstacle to further development in the productive forces, in human creative capacity. This generates economic contradictions and sets in motion a process of organization among the rising social class: the warlords under communitarian and archaic societies, the bourgeoisie in tributary societies, including those with a significant petty commodity component, and the proletariat under capitalism.
There has always been a tension within the historical materialist tradition regarding the relative importance of economic, political, and cultural factors in the revolutionary process. This debate is, for obvious reasons, most developed with respect to the revolutionary transition from capitalism to communism. For Engels and much of the later social democratic tradition economic factors were paramount. As industrialization proceeded the proletariat would grow and eventually become the vast majority of the electorate, winning state power through electoral means and then using control of the state to restructure society. Lenin argued that this is a mistake, that the commodification of labor under capitalism so alienated labor that workers were generally unable to rise to the communist ideal spontaneously, that breaks towards socialism occur first in societies where capitalist development (and thus the commodification of labor power and the alienation of labor) has been retarded by imperialism and other factors, and that a conscious leadership, constituted as a disciplined vanguard party, must lead the revolution, relying on “transitional demands” which address the immediate needs of the working classes, proletariat and peasantry, but to which Capital cannot accede without compromising its position. The vast majority of the proletariat remains unable to understand the communist ideal well into the process of socialist transformation. Bogdanov, Gramsci, and Mao add to this that the party must also, and even more importantly, lead ideologically, cultivating and understanding of the communist ideal through grassroots political education (Bogdanov), using popular, democratic, and religious traditions as a bridge to help the people understand the communist ideal (Gramsci), and struggling against individualistic tendencies which reproduce capitalism (Mao).
But in all cases historical materialist theory argues that revolutions will take place only when technological development makes old economic structures obsolete and empowers a new, emerging ruling class at the expense of an old one. Thus metal technology gave warlords an edge over the largely religious leadership of communitarian and archaic societies and first specialized agriculture and crafts production and eventually manufacturing gave the bourgeoisie an edge over the old warlord class. Marx assumed that modern industry would give the proletariat, which actually produces surplus, an edge over the bourgeoisie, which merely manages its extraction and allocation, and which consumes it (Marx and Engels 1848/1993). At the same time, though, Marx seems to have understood communism to require technological progress which made routine labor redundant and thus eliminated the need for anyone to do anything which was not an expression of the creative potential which defines us as human. This turns out to entail a basic contradiction. The technological progress which makes communism possible also renders the working class not more powerful but actually redundant, undercutting such traditional tools of class struggle as the strike and leaving Capital with access to military technology which makes old strategies of insurrection and popular war seem rather hopeless.
Two alternative theories of revolution derive from the other two principal traditions of secular social theory. We have already mentioned Weber’s focus on the emergence of new spiritual and civilizational ideals –what he calls prophecy. For interpretive sociology revolutions take place when prophets are heard. Prophetic charisma and ideals become routinized and effectively institutionalized, establishing fundamentally new ways of being human. There is no real account of how or why this sometimes happens and sometimes does not, beyond the fact that prophets who speak to popular sufferings and hopes receive a better reception than others. There is also a very strong sense in Weber that some ideals –those characterized by innerworldly asceticism, on doing the will of God in the world– lead to more powerful civilizations. This impact is intensified for Reformed Protestantism, in which the doctrine of predestination creates anxiety regarding one’s spiritual status (elect or damned) regarding which effective innerworldly activity is regarded as evidence (Weber 1921/1968).
There is a significant body of work which crosses the lines between the historical materialist and interpretive tradition which looks more specifically at what is involved in institutionalizing the liberal, democratic and capitalist ideals. Barrington Moore, for example, argues that the violent liquidation of the peasantry early in the process of capitalist development allows more democratic structures to emerge later on. And Theda Skocpol looks at the relative ability of the different emerging nation state structures to rationalize and provide the institutional infrastructure actually required by capitalist development and argues that when absolutist states fail to rationalize, as England did, the result is a break to more radically democratic forms (France) or even to socialism (Russia) (Moore 1966, Skocpol 1979).
Durkheim, finally, argues that it is precisely the collective effervescence, the distinctive intensity of social interaction which characterizes times of social upheaval, which enables human beings to see beyond their narrow horizons and imagine new and higher truths. These truths are then crystalized in new beliefs and new rituals which attempt to reproduce them. Again, there is no full account of just why, how, or when such collective effervescence emergences, though Durkheim’s early works suggest a focus on growing population density leading to pressure for innovation and an increased division of labor (Bellah 1973). Presumably the contradictions generated by this process generate intensified interaction as people attempt to resolve them and, when solutions within the context of existing norms and structures are not possible, the interaction itself catalyzes the emergence of new ideals. Other work along the traditionalist-functionalist spectrum in which Durkheim is located has focused on the role of the intermediate, nonmarket, nonstate institutions of civil society in making democracy possible. And work integrating functionalist and historical materialist insights has looked at the critical role of village community structures and peasant movements on the one hand (Eric Wolf 1969) and popular religious traditions (Lancaster 1987, Hodge 1986, and Mansueto 1995, 2002, 2010) on forging a mass movement towards socialism.
These theories are an important complement for and corrective to historical materialism, both because of the more expansive understanding of what a revolution might mean (a change in spiritual and civilizational ideal and not just in the structures which attempt to realize that ideal) and because of the depth they add to the already very considerable and growing body of historical materialist theory which engages questions of ideology, culture, and religion. At the same time, the historical materialist focus on the material (technological and economic) basis for revolution –and the impossibility of revolution where that basis is lacking is the condition of any possible analysis of why and how spiritual and civilizational ideals change. This is particularly important as we enter a period in which it becomes increasingly apparent that, contrary to Marx’s expectations, technological progress may render the working classes impotent and redundant rather than empowering them.
Where do we stand currently on the question of how revolutions take place? Human civilization, we have argued, is fundamentally an attempt to seek Being understood in the form of a particular spiritual and civilizational ideal, under definite material conditions, using definite social structures. When an idea loses credibility, when no structure can realize it, or when the material conditions to sustain it cease to exist, that ideal is abandoned in favor of a new one. More modest changes occur as civilizations develop new structures to pursue old ideals and develop new regimes of accumulation within a given structure.
We affirm the historical materialist thesis that no change can take place for which the material conditions do not exist. And we accept the contributions of both later historical materialist theorists and of interpretive and functional sociology that there spiritual as well as material conditions for revolution. But we reject the privileged place granted to the state not only by socialism and communism by nearly all secular social theory as a locus of and agent for revolutionary social transformation. Rather, see the state as one institution among many and argue that structural transformation must reach across all social domains, from technology, through economic and political structure, to the family and the ideological, cultural, and religious institutions of civil society. Conscious political-theological leadership is important not because the “hand” of history can be forced by a vanguard but rather because understanding the aims of human life –and the means to realizing those aims– at the very highest level helps leaders identify, cultivate, and mentor other leaders and build, conserve, and transform institutions over the longue durée. The actual process of revolution integrates the spontaneous and conscious maturation of material and spiritual conditions. Old ideals lose credibility, the structures which sustain them no longer work and the social classes (or other actors) which carry them find it increasingly difficult to build and exercise power. Emerging leaders from emerging social classes forge new ideals and build organizations, institutions, and broader structures to carry them.
This process of institution building, though, must be properly understood not just as the creation of new structures or the transformation of old ones but as the actual identification, cultivation, and mentoring of leaders, a process which in turn rests on one on one relationship building. New structures emerge to support, nurture, and protect these leaders and the relationships between them. By themselves structures do nothing.
Authentic revolutionary change at any level is a very protracted process. At the highest level, as transformation in spiritual and civilizational ideals, it can take centuries and millennia. This is especially true where the ideas in question reflect an advanced, and therefore difficult to cultivate, understanding of what it means to be human. Sacral monarchy swept the planet like wildfire within a few hundred years of the development of Bronze technology. And the technicist variant of the secular ideal, which aims at transcending finitude by means of scientific, technological and economic progress, which first emerged in the seventeenth century was, arguably, dominant by the nineteenth. But both quickly drew relenting opposition from the humanity that they instrumentalized. The axial ideals which first emerged between 1200 and 800 BCE, on the other hand, which seek the divine in wisdom, justice, and harmony with the universe, have yet to be fully embraced. And the humanistic variants of the secular ideal, which emerged in the later middle ages, took hundreds of years to begin driving political events on a global scale and, while still alive, remain poorly understood. That is because these ideals require an unusually high level of intellectual, moral, spiritual, and political development on the part of the people as a whole. As Lenin pointed out, in order to understand Marx’s Capital one must first master Hegel’s Logic in its entirety, a feat which may, in fact, not even be possible. And so there may not be any true communist revolutionaries, only aspirants. Liberals and democrats might substitute other texts (Locke and the Federalist, Hume and Smith, Kant and Weber, Rousseau and de Tocqueville and Durkheim) – or even other practices– which are a bit more accessible. But the basic point is the same.
But even structural change takes a long time. Petty commodity production emerged in various parts of the world over periods of hundreds of years beginning around 800 BCE and never fully displaced tributary exploitation by conquering warlords and emperors. Capitalism has taken at least 500 years to fully establish itself, if we date its advent late, around the time of the European conquests of the Americas, Africa, and Asia. And the socialist transition currently appears to be abortive, though we lack the historical distance to make a definitive judgment of any kind.
The appeal of bold calls for political revolution comes from the fact that it is –sometimes– possible to seize state power and attempt a rapid transformation of both civilizational ideals and social structures. But the record of such attempts is modest at best. At this juncture it seems very unlikely that the socialist revolutions of the twentieth century actually represented a real change in ruling class, much less a break from capitalism and towards communism. They were, more likely, variant paths of capitalist development. And as Zhou Enlai pointed out when asked about the impact of the French Revolution (or, we might ask instead, the English or US revolutions), “it is still much too early to tell” to what extent their very real progress in extending freedom and democracy will survive the imperial and capitalist projects they also facilitated.
The Bern is Not a Revolution
With regard to the prospects for the specific “revolution” the promise of which has been made during the course of this election cycle we remain extremely skeptical. The principal question around which Senator Sanders has articulated in his campaign –growing income inequality—is, to be sure, a serious one. And it is good to see attention focused on questions of class when for the past several decades the Left has been focused primarily on questions of race, gender, ethnicity, and culture. This said, there are serious problems with Senator Sanders’ implicit strategy as well as the way in which he has cut the issue of income inequality.
First, Sanders makes the classic social democratic error of claiming that a revolution, even in the most limited sense of a shift in which class rules, is possible on the basis of a purely electoral struggle –and one focused on the Presidency at that. Attempts at an electoral transition to socialism have either been limited to reforms capable of winning the support of the more advanced sectors of Capital (the social democratic experience in Europe, of which the social liberalism of the New Deal and Great Society eras in the United States is really just an attenuated version) or, where they have actually threatened the bourgeoisie, have been met with armed repression (the experience of Allende in Chile, which defined the perspective of my generation with respect to the question of elections and armed struggle).
This is not to suggest either that armed struggle is to be preferred to electoral struggle or that we should not engage in electoral work. On the contrary, attempts to bring the working class to power by means of armed struggle have also failed. This is true both because state power does not constitute a ruling class and neither the mass party nor the vanguard party have turned out to be particularly faithful representatives of or effective means of exercising power on the part of the proletariat. This should not come as a surprise. Indeed, the very idea of the primacy of state power is quite contrary to historical materialism, for which class rule depends on ownership of the means of production, not control of the state. And the whole experience of historic socialism demonstrates that even 70 years of Communist power did not break the power of Capital which, rather, hid out in state structures waiting for a propitious moment to return. Ideological campaigns against bourgeois elements within the socialist state and the Communist Party, of the sort carried out in China during the Cultural Revolution, did no better and caused far greater damage to the social fabric and indeed to the whole civilizational project in China. It is, furthermore, not at all clear what kind of armed struggle would be necessary to prevail against Capital, acting through the state structures which constitute its Empire, given contemporary military technologies.
Armed struggle remains, to be sure, a legitimate option when deployed against the most brutal and oppressive regimes, where all of the traditional just war criteria have been met, but it is not a strategy for social revolution.
Electoral struggle, similarly, can be an important tactic in a broader strategy for organizing the working classes and transforming social institutions –especially for changing what the state itself is doing which, while not nearly as important as the secular left and right both believe it to be, is nonetheless very significant. But seeing electoral struggle as a way of carrying out a revolution both creates illusions about what can be accomplished in this arena and undercuts important possibilities of collaboration across social classes in addressing global challenges such as climate change, the impact of emerging technologies, globalization, armed conflicts, etc.
One ruling class displaces another when it becomes more powerful than its predecessor as a result of ecological, demographic, technological, economic, political, and cultural changes. This is not currently happening for the working classes. On the contrary, the working classes globally are experiencing the early stages of what will likely be a centuries-long process of technological progress which will render them redundant. And the working classes of the older imperial metropoles are at the vanguard of this process because globalization has rendered them too expensive by comparison with equally productive workers in the developing countries. It is the fact that the working classes today are more nearly left behind than rising that explains, at the most fundamental level, the support of so many workers, especially in the older metropoles, for national-conservative and right-populist politics rather than for social democracy, democratic socialism, communism, or any other left alternative, established or emerging.
This does not mean, to be sure, the there is no way to improve the position of the working classes or even to mount a longue durée struggle for power. But such a struggle will depend, on the one hand, on technological and economic changes, like those cited above, which, while affecting the working classes first and more dramatically, also undercut the position of the bourgeoisie, and on building at the political and cultural levels, through organizing and spiritual cultivation, the power which is lacking at the material level.
We will look shortly at how this might be done. But first let us consider the possibility that we need to cut Senators Sanders some slack. Perhaps all the talk of revolution is itself just a tactic (if perhaps an unwise one) in what, whether he recognizes it or not, is a campaign, a political operation, and not by itself a strategy for revolution or indeed for anything else. If this is true then the campaign should be evaluated as just that, regardless of what Senator Sanders or his followers claim. Perhaps in this light we can return a more favorable verdict …
Unfortunately this is not the case. Campaigns are a coordinated sequence of political actions designed to achieve (or make well defined progress towards achieving) a defined strategic aim within a particular theatre of struggle. In this case, the aim would seem to be to mobilize, organize, and raise the level of political consciousness among younger members of the working classes. In a campaign a problem (in this case growing income inequality) is cut as an issue around which specific, winnable demands can be made, and with respect to which there are well defined victory conditions.
Other commentators have pointed out that Senator Sanders has not significantly increased the participation of young workers in the political process. My concern, though, is more precisely the way in which he has cut the issue of income inequality. While he has made a number of policy proposals, such as increases in the minimum wage, single payer health insurance, etc. which would improve the conditions of the working classes generally, the focal point of his campaign has been an issue of critical importance to a very specific segment of the working classes: the cost of higher education and the resulting debt load for an increasingly underemployed intelligentsia.
Let me be clear. I believe that the intelligentsia is, with the exception of a small and contracting privileged elite which enjoys monopoly rents on creativity or innovation, an integral part of the proletariat. Resistance to proletarianization on the part of this fraction of the working classes is important because it is here that the alienation of labor, the loss of creative control, which Marx identified as the most fundamental problem of capitalism, is most keenly felt (at least where independent peasants and artisans have already been liquidated). That is why this class fraction has long been the natural core constituency for the communist ideal in its most authentic sense.
This said, Senator Sanders’ approach has a number of problems. First, it is mistaken to say that free higher education at public institutions in the US would simply extend to our country a practice which is already common in Europe and elsewhere. On the contrary, most European countries track students from an early age, maintain rigorous university entry standards, and offer few opportunities for students to begin university level studies in mid-life. This approach has advantages. University standards have probably remained higher and the distinction between research universities and what in Europe are often called polytechnics has remained clearer, with less (though still growing) pressure to vocationalize universities. The European model also means that free university tuition, because it is offered to fewer students, is more nearly sustainable economically, though this policy has come under increasing attack in recent years as Europe struggles to support its welfare state.
Higher education in the United States is very different. We offer low barriers to entry across wide age ranges and then let students sort themselves out once at a college or university, with low levels of support and correspondingly low completion rates. We have a tradition of a universal liberal education core curriculum at the university level which, while under attack, sets us apart from Europe which offers such studies only at elite secondary schools or not at all. The lines between liberal education, preparation for a scholarly or scientific career, professional preparation, and vocational training is much less clearly drawn here than in Europe. Meaningful “free tuition” at public universities, in order to significantly expand what is already very broad access, would be much more expensive than it is in Europe. Or, to keep costs down, it would come with expectations of progress towards degree which would actually undercut opportunities for older working students who sometimes take decades to complete a degree but who are generally the “nontraditional” students who benefit most from expanded access.
The focus on free tuition, furthermore, simply evades a fundamental problem with the way in which the US has handled higher education policy. The promise we have made to the working classes that higher education will guarantee them professional status and a middle class lifestyle is simply a lie. Expanding higher education reduces the monopoly rent on skill historically enjoyed by the professional classes and, together with globalization, is contributing to the proletarianization of this class. At the same time, in the name of increased access and “relevance” to students more interested in economic mobility than in assume a leading role in the intellectual, moral, spiritual, and political leadership of our civilization, we have undercut the rigor of the liberal education we offer. This in turn contributes to phenomena like the Sanders campaign –but also the Trump campaign—which rely on mass semiliteracy: people who, whether young hipsters with Ivy League degrees or displaced factory workers who have taken a couple of courses at the community college, imagine themselves in a position to deliberate regarding questions of meaning, value, and public policy apart from the conscious leadership, community, and institutional discipline historically provided by both political parties and the institutions of civil society, such as local congregations and civic and fraternal organizations.
Those who know my work know that I believe deeply that people from diverse backgrounds can, at different stages in life, benefit from and should have access to a rigorous liberal education. But we need to be clear to the people to whom we offer this what purpose it serves. While it may also offer them superior preparation for professional studies, its main purpose is to cultivate spiritually mature, free human beings and engaged citizens who can decide for themselves, on the bases of rational deliberation, where they stand on fundamental questions of meaning and value. Such an education involves studying a great deal the immediate relevance of which is not going to obvious to most students because frankly one purpose of liberal education is to cultivate human beings with a perspective of centuries, millennia, or even, at the highest levels, the perspective of eternity. And at the end of this process we become wise only to the extent that we realize how much more we need to learn and how much we benefit from communities, institutions, and leaders who, while respecting scrupulously our freedom of conscience, also challenge us and inform our conscience.
Education and research which serve workforce and economic development, meanwhile, are also legitimate missions for higher education. But we must cut ourselves loose from the web of lies which tells students that higher education will guarantee them a “middle class lifestyle” when in fact this will become increasingly rare even at the highest skill levels. We must provide vocational and professional preparation which trains students for work which uses ecologically sustainable technologies, captures or cultivates comparative advantages, cultivates human creativity, and meets real social needs while recognizing that even advanced skills will gradually become redundant. Higher education policy cannot be our principal means of addressing poverty and economic inequality. We must look at both employment in public works to repair and expand badly needed infrastructure, support for entrepreneurship, and the establishment of a basic income as well.
Again, this does not mean that we should cut higher education budgets. On the contrary, in the long run we should probably be investing more rather than less in higher education, across its liberal education, sapiential leadership, scientific, technological and workforce/economic development missions. We just need to do it in the right way, for the right reasons, and not rely on deception to justify the expenditures to a skeptical electorate.
A Longue Durée Strategy
So what should we do? Let us be clear first whether, why (or why not) and in what sense we need a revolution. The way in which we answer these questions, together with our analysis of the present period, frames our strategic estimate and strategic direction.
The fundamental argument for revolution is simple. The hegemonic spiritual and civilizational ideal of our time –what I have called technocratic secularism, which seeks to transcend finitude by means of scientific, technological, and economic progress—is bankrupt. On the one hand, it does not actually speak to humanity’s highest aspiration, which is not simply to live and consume forever, but rather to transcend contingency and become Being as Such through relational, transformative generativity. On the other hand, no existing structure, capitalist or socialist, actually supports the scientific, technological, and economic progress required to realize this ideal. Under capitalism both the value of labor power and the rate of profit decline as the economy becomes more technologically advanced, ultimately undercutting the conditions of existence of both Labor and Capital. Under socialism, because labor power remains commodified and thus alienated, as market pressures ease productivity declines as workers refuse to work to promote a civilizational progress in which they are not active, direct participants.
The alternative humanistic ideals of secular civilization, while less deeply flawed than the technocratic ideal, have proven no more susceptible of realization. Historical materialism is correct that rational autonomy and democratic self-determination are impossible under capitalism. But socialism, in addition to not actually being a form of transition to communism, has shown that, to the extent that it actually breaks Capital, requires a state and party structure which undercut the rational autonomy and democratic self-determination which are as integral to the communist as to the liberal and democratic ideals.
We need a new ideal and a new structure. We have discussed the ideal we propose elsewhere (Mansueto 2016a, 2016b). It is a way of ways which joins the insights of the axial and secular traditions, seeking wisdom, doing justice and ripening Being in harmony with the law of nature, while recognizing the value of plural ways and of the ability of each individual to decide rationally for him or herself which way they will follow, and the right of the people collectively to determine their own destiny, without the requirement that the sell their labor power in order to survive. But we have also been clear that this ideal, while advanced through innerworldly civilization building, is ultimately transcendental, and incapable of full realization within space and time. The revolution, in other words, turns out to be both the process of spiritual cultivation envisioned by the axial traditions and the process of social structural transformation envisioned by humanistic secularisms.
The principal insight which derives from the analysis developed in this paper is that the strategic position of the various social forces in the present period is rather different from that envisioned by either neoliberal defenders of Capital or their socialist critics. Technological progress is undercutting the conditions of existence of both Capital and Labor. The position of Labor is, to be sure, weaker to begin with and deteriorating much more rapidly. But Capital exists only as the accumulated surplus extracted from Labor and realized through the sale of commodities. Ultimately Capital without Labor is Capital no more. As Labor is rendered redundant, Capital ceases to exist.
The question is how Capital and Labor respond to these deeply rooted longue durée trends. Will Capital seek to contain and eventually liquidate what is increasingly a redundant surplus population, not only of workers but also of capitalists, and transform itself into an AI which produces as much as it can, consuming as little as it can –essentially Frank Tipler’s Omega, a technological transform of the Calvinist God? Or will the bourgeoisie, as it struggles with the increasingly precarious terms of its own existence, decide its defining identity is not capitalist but human and make common cause with the working classes to chart a human future for complex organization, life, and intelligence in the universe? Will Labor spend itself in rear guard struggles which aid and abet the genocidal and anti-human civilizational agenda of the most backward sectors of Capital and post-Capital? Or will it undertake the great work of forging a new ideal and the institutions which can advance that ideal, understanding that the process is infinitely prolonged and that along the way we will become something vastly different than we currently are, realizing our humanity is fundamentally the desire to Be something we cannot be, but which is nonetheless infinitely worth pursuing?
How can we organize the working classes in a way which builds and exercises power in service of a new spiritual and civilizational ideal which seeks wisdom, does justice, and ripens Being, which respects rational autonomy, promotes democratic self-determination, and decommodifies the creative process, as well as institutional structures which serve that ideal? And how can we help the bourgeoisie understand that the conditions of its own existence are in fact decaying as well and that if it wants a human future, it will find that future only in alliance with the working classes?
There are, broadly speaking, three dimensions to our strategy. First, we must build a conscious political-theological leadership capable forging this ideal and of building, conserving and transforming institutions which can serve it. As we suggested in Sanctuary and Commons, and as we will explain in more detail in a forthcoming article, it has proven very difficult to construct political-theological leadership organizations while evading sectarianism, authoritarianism, and even cults of personality. Because of this we favor an approach which focuses on identifying and cultivating leaders first, with organizational structures taking shape later once there is a critical mass of leaders with the degree of spiritual development necessary to resist such tendencies, and the wisdom and prudence to find forms of organization appropriate to their authentic tasks.
This dimension of our strategy is especially important in connection with our critique of the Sanders campaign. As we have noted, the campaign is (like most of young “New Lefts” of the past three generations) first and foremost a form of resistance to the proletarianization of the intelligentsia. This resistance is vital because it is this group which feels most keenly the alienation of labor which is the fundamental contradiction of capitalism and which thus constitutes the core constituency for communism. But the form of resistance matters a great deal. Left intellectuals are no more immune than displaced factory workers or any other social category to resisting proletarianization in a way which reflects narrow special interests rather than their higher social vocation. And we have shown that the Sanders campaign is just such a form of resistance, focused on the immediate, narrow economic interests of young, marginalized intellectuals –interests which they do not even necessarily share with their own older selves.
But what is the authentic social vocation of the intelligentsia? Intellectuals are, by nature, a cleros, a group set apart for service to the Common Good, and specifically for the functions of teaching, sanctifying, and governing. This is a function which can be carried out in many different ways, but it presupposes a much higher degree of intellectual development than most of the intelligentsia (young or old) currently possesses, including at least a mastery of the ongoing debate regarding what it means to be human, and the means of realizing that end, and an ability to decide independently where we stand with respect to that debate. This, in turn, requires a profound mastery of the liberal arts, the interpretive disciplines, the sciences, and the wisdoms. Second, it requires spiritual self-cultivation in our chosen way, in community if possible but individually if no community exists which can support our development in accord with our convictions. While we do not need to be perfect and must never imagine ourselves (or our teachers) to be perfect, we must be making real progress towards the ideals we advocate. Third, it requires further development of the skills necessary to exercise the teaching, sanctifying, and governing offices, preferably in combination.
This final qualification points us, in turn, to the second dimension of our strategy: the actual work of forging an ideal, of building institutions which can contribute to its realization, and of forming broader layers of leaders for those institutions. We have discussed this work in some detail in Sanctuary and Commons. Here we will simply reiterate the importance both of restoring the Commons –making available freely the resources people need to survive and develop in a society in which more and more human labor is becoming redundant—and institutions which centralize resources to support research, scholarship, creative activity, spiritual self-cultivation, and the development of new technologies and new ways of life. Our strategy is fundamentally one of building a new way of life as the old one disintegrates over a period of what will likely be centuries and which may take millennia and which, when understood at the highest level, never ceases.
The third dimension of our strategy is a vigorous and open alliance policy. Specifically, we must constructively engage the bourgeoisie, which will increasingly find that it must choose between a human future and displacement by a successor to Capital which takes up residence in an artificial intelligence and dispenses with human capitalists not too long after it dispenses with human workers. This includes a vigorous struggle to help the bourgeoisie understand that amortality and technological singularity will not satisfy humanity –that what we seek is to create and not to consume—and an attempt to negotiate interim solutions which help the bourgeoisie to resist the temptations of a genocidal “thinning of the herd” which would inevitably expand to include them as well. This process, as well, will take centuries or even millennia.
In the light of the rise of a enthonationalist/populist right among the working classes, reflected in the various ways in the Trump campaign, the Brexit vote and much (though not all) Euroskpeticism, many Islamic fundamentalisms, the Hindutva movement in India and the rise of nationalism in China, we must unite with the liberal bourgeoisie in defending the liberal order against resurgent fascistoid tendencies worldwide, even if this temporarily postpones struggles around the growing economic inequality in the old imperial metropoles as a result of technological change and globalization.
This does not mean that our strategy eschews struggle – even armed struggle. Indeed, we may find ourselves fighting to resist resurgent fascisms or quasifascisms born of the marginalization of the relatively privileged working classes of the former imperial metropoles (or imperial restorations projects in India, Dar-al-Islam, or China). And we may find ourselves locked in battle, over the long run, with the predecessor systems of Tipler’s Omega, which elements in Capital (or already existing AIs) which almost certainly attempt to create. But this struggle will be defensive more than revolutionary and we must resist the temptation to conclude that simply by showing ourselves the best fighters we can seize state power and remake the world. This is a fight we would undertake in alliance with the pro-human, pro-civilizational elements of the bourgeoisie, in which we would challenge them as well to be sure, but which would still leave in its wake the long hard process of creating new and better ways of living, new and better ways of being human.
There are no royal roads, only the difficult “mountain road” which leads, by twist and turns, and with many dead ends towards a true home which, however, we do not fully know, cannot fully want, and at which we never fully arrive, at least as long as we remain ourselves. Let the young try to gird themselves and go where they want. I am old now and have learned that I lead best when others gird me, and stretch out my arms, and lure me into places I would never have ventured on my own.
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The axial traditions are those ways of being human which emerged from the process of religious problematization, rationalization, and democratization which took place with the crisis of the Bronze Age sacral monarchies between 1200 and 100e BCE and the emergence of specialized agriculture and crafts production and petty commodity production beginning around 800 BCE. For a further discussion of their classification as ways of Seeking Being, Justice and Liberation, and Harmony see Mansueto 2016.