Which Political Theology? Understanding the Deep Structure of Ripening Being

There is no more pressing question for humanity in the present period than that of the failure of the revolutions which began in the Enlightenment to make good on their promise of liberation. Liberalism, which promised to all the freedom to decide rationally, for themselves, what it means to be human, and to act on that freedom so long as it does not conflict with the similar freedom for others, has instead given birth to Capital, which requires under pain of starvation that all do its will, and which is displacing even its former owners, the bourgeoise, as the great lords of the planet. Democracy, while it has sometimes been able to hold the power of Capital in check and even support a redistribution of resources which makes liberal freedoms more meaningful for the vast majority, seems less and less able to resist the capacity of Capital to render the State, which it is democracy’s means of restricting market forces, largely irrelevant. And Socialism, rather than making progress towards the decommodification of labor power and our final liberation from Capital. has instead served as a mechanism for primitive accumulation and imperial restoration in colonized countries and marginalized empires on the periphery of the world system.

The principal response (generally called poststructuralist or deconstructionist) to these failures over the course of the past 50 years has been to blame the Enlightenment itself  for the “failure” of the liberal, democratic, and socialist revolutions —to claim that the ideal of rational autonomy was, from the beginning, a reflex of a will to domination which defined European civilization as colonial at the very root. As Quijano and Dussel put it, Descartes’ cogito is just a cover for ego conquiro which defines the distinctively European way of being (Quijano 2000a, 2000b, Dussel 2008).  We should not be surprised that the civilization which emerged form the Enlightenment turned out to be oppressive.  And most, looking behind the Enlightenment, see the older tradition of  “ontotheology” and rational metaphysics, of the attempt to rise rationally to a first principle in terms of which the universe can be explained and human action ordered, which they trace back to Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle and see as the deep logic behind the the regime of techno political control which reached full fruition in capitalism and socialism. (Derrida 1967, 2001). 

We have devoted a good bit of our scholarly career to defeating this narrative (Mansueto 2005, 2010).  Instead, we have argued that rational dialectics forms an integral part of the broader Axial Age (Jaspers 1953) project of religious problematization, rationalization, and democratization which is by no means uniquely European, but which includes Judaism, Buddhism, the Jaina tradition, and  the Upanishads, Zoroastrianism, and the historic Chinese schools (especially Confucianism and Taoism) as well as Hellenism. It is, in other words, part of humanity’s long march towards freedom, even if all of these ideologies were leveraged at one point or another to legitimate Empire. The humanistic secular projects (liberal, democratic, and socialist) which emerged from the Enlightenment, while deeply flawed, are  extensions and radicalizations of this project, claiming for everyone the right to the full development of their capacities which the Axial Age still reserved, in practice if not in principle, to a minority of philosophers, sages, and saints. Everyone has, at least in potentia, the ability to decide for themselves what it means to be human, to participate in deliberation regarding the common good, and to engage in work which is a creative expression of both what Marx called their species being and their distinctive individual vocation. 

We have also argued, following Marx, that the liberal and democratic variants of the humanistic project are too limited. As long as people are forced to sell their labor power in order to survive, they are forced to do not what an informed conscience commands but what their employers desire and are thus not only subject to total instrumentalization, but are compelled do what they may believe is wrong. From this point of view the decommodification of labor power is the necessary condition for realizing not just the liberal and democratic projects but also the various axial projects of spiritual self-cultivation as well. It is not possible to be morally excellent and spiritually advanced and survive in a capitalist society. The decommodification of labor power is morally obligatory and Marx’s contribution in demonstrating this places him among humanity’s great prophets, pointing the way to a deeper understanding and realization of the human vocation. 

This said, it remains to explain why both the Axial Age projects and their Enlightenment extensions have failed, becoming the prisoners of Empire and/or Capital. At one level, of course, this is obvious: it is because of Empire and Capital, which have built up the power necessary to crush any attempt at liberation or, where this is not possible, to turn it into a means of legitimation. But our theory tells us that our struggle is that of humanity as a whole, and that we ought to be able to organize the people to resist and transform … And we have, over the past two centuries, built powerful movements of resistance and revolution, only to find that the results were … Empire and/or Capital. What are we doing wrong? 

It is here that a critical look at the deep logic of our project is in order. And it is especially critical for those of us who have insisted on the decommodification of labor power as the condition for creating a society which makes possible authentic rational autonomy and authentic human excellence. Here two things stand out. First, if we go back to Marx’s critique of capitalism, we find at its core the concept of alienation: the claim that the commodification of labor power alienates us from our nature as human beings, so that we actually lose sight of what it is that capitalism takes from us. Alienation is, at the deepest, level, what is wrong with capitalism.  But it also makes us unable to see that capitalism is wrong. Yet Marx and most of his interpreters, both social democratic and communist (outside of Fromm and the Frankfurt School, Fromm 1941) have ignored the –very dark—implications of this analysis. The alienation generated by the commodification of labor power means that the proletariat, far from spontaneously developing into a conscious revolutionary class dedicated to transcending capitalism, is in fact profoundly susceptible to authoritarian ideologies, patriarchal and racist, and has frequently been transformed into a mass base for fascism. 

This creates a profound paradox. If we are to organize effectively we must first transcend the alienation the organizing is intended to overcome. It is this which has made the attempt to understand the “spiritual conditions for communism” so critical. Thus the growing influence, since the problems of socialism began apparent after the Second World War, of both Gramsci and Mao who, albeit in very different ways, attempt to address this problem, whether by leveraging popular religious traditions with an anticapitalist valence, or engaging in “study and struggle” designed to eradicate bourgeois ideology (and thus presumably alienation) head on. And yet Gramsci’s influence did nothing to prevent the decline of this communist parities it inspired in Europe nor did it keep those in Latin America who embraced his vision from themselves becoming authoritarian. And it certainly did not prevent the resurgence of fascism on either continent. And Mao, of course, led China into an authoritarian nightmare which nearly destroyed Chinese civilization. 

And so we need to look deeper, at Marx himself. And when we do, we find that despite his insistence that the criticism of religion is the beginning of all criticism, Marx has his own spirituality. His aim is not to stamp out religion, but to realize it, or at least to realize its aim, which is that of all human beings: the desire to be God. In order to understand this, we need to remember that God, as Thomas demonstrated in De Ente et Essentia,  is the identity between existence and essence, the One whose essence is to be. And we need to remember Marx’s formal definition of Communism. 

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).

What Marx is doing here, of course, is to gloss over the distinction between necessary and contingent Being and claiming that purely political changes can carry humanity across the threshold from contingency to necessity, resolving, as he put it, the contradiction between existence and essence and, in effect, building God. 

This dynamic of godbuilding and messianism is integral to the logic of historic socialism. Socialist and Communist parties have simply chosen not to talk about it and have disciplined or expelled those who do, whether to advocate it (Rowley 1978) or even to constrain it in a way which actually serves the interests of the party (Lukacs 1923/1971). But it is precisely the logic of godbuilding which drives an effort to transcend finitude (in the form scarcity) by means scientific, technological, and economic progress, as the economic precondition for true communism, legitimating the transformation of socialism from a form of transition to communism which aims at the decommodification of labor power into a strategy for primitive accumulation and imperial restoration. 

Of course no historic society has claimed to have actually realized the higher stage of communism. The key, on the contrary, is what precedes communism: socialism or the workers state. The means by which the proletariat will transcend capitalism and thus alienation is the same one by which the bourgeoisie overturned feudalism and carried out the liberal and democratic revolutions: a political revolution directed at state power. For social democrats this takes place by means of democratic elections; for communists it may happen by means of elections or it may require insurrection or popular war, but it is mediated through the communist party, which understands the “line of march, conditions, and ultimate general result (Marx and Engels 1848/2009) of the struggle. If communism is actual resolution of the contradiction between existence and essence, i.e. actual theosis, socialism is the formal resolution of this contradiction, it is formal theosis. 

Now we already know that historic revolutions are complex phenomena which, whatever they claim, bring together many different social forces with many different aims. And of course among those aims, especially on the capitalist periphery, have been industrialization (which most Marxists believed was necessary anyway) and the revival or restoration of states (in some cases, such as that of Russia and China, large, territorial imperial states) which had never quite made it into the imperialist inner circle (Russia) or which had been humiliated by both their neighbor and by Europeans (China). 

The construction of socialism as the formal resolution of the contradiction between existence and essence, and thus as formal theosis, provides a means of legitimating socialist states as they turn away from the aim of decommodification and towards primitive accumulation and imperial restoration. And the key link in this process is the claim that the principal means of carrying out a revolution is the seizure of state power, whether by peaceful or violent means. 

This in turn brings us back to why the poststructuralist/deconstructionist analysis of the failure of the Enlightenment project is so profoundly wrong. The latest current in this broader trend has resdiscovered political theology, and in particular the political theology of German NAZI jurist Carl Schmitt —not to criticize it, mind you, but rather to effectively embrace it.  Some of Schmitt’s claims are, to be sure, rather ordinary for anyone possessing a basic acquaintance with the sociology of religion: e.g. that secular political ideas derive ultimately from theological concepts developed by the Romans and by Christianity. But the key claim  —that the “sovereign is he who decides the exception” i.e. that sovereignty is constituted by the capacity to create and suspend a legal order — Schmitt actually took from the revolutionary antifascist Walter Benjamin. This seems, in turn, to have rendered the claim politically acceptable for those with  communist or broadly liberatory aims and has become the foundation of most of the new revolutionary theory produced in the past two decades, especially that of Agamben, Badiou, and Zizek. 

In our own view this amounts to a de facto fascist hegemony over the Left, exercised through Schmitt’s decisionist political theology. The idea that the ethical and legal order is constituted by the sovereign, whether understood as God, the people, or a revolutionary party of the Left or Right, is tantamount to reducing ethics to raw force —the position advanced by Thrasymachus in Plato’s Republic and is the natural consequence of a univocal metaphysics in which everything exists in the same way, with God (if acknowledged in a particular system) differing quantitatively rather than qualitatively from other beings: i.e.as infinitely powerful. This is the metaphysics which first appeared with the organic ideologies of Empire during the Axial Age: the Sophists and Skeptics, the Caravaka and the Legalists, and which was perfected by Paul of Tarsus and his interpreters. 

To put the matter clearly the idea that there is a natural law, an implicit moral law which is prior to any and all legislation, is not the source of authoritarianism, but our only safeguard against it. Decisionist political theology, and the univocal metaphysics on which it is based, is the theology and the metaphysics of fascism and of all other authoritarianisms. 

Thus the importance of political ontology and political theology. Specifically, we must guard at the metaphysical level against any turn towards a univocal metaphysics  —a metaphysics in which everything, including God, exists in the same way we do, with the difference between God and creature understood as purely quantitative. A univocal metaphysics creates a zero-sum game between God and humanity, between humanity and all other species and indeed between all forms of organization. This makes our effort to realize our latent potential itself sinful and the only way to honor God radical submission. And the only credible alternative to this submission is to reject and deny God, and seek to transcend finitude by means of scientific and technological progress, the first form of godbuilding. The result at the level of political theology is precisely the fascist “sovereign who decides the exception,” who grounds the legal and moral order on the basis of an original act of violence which he claims to be divine.  

We have long argued (Mansueto 2005, 2010) that the most adequate alternative to a univocal metaphysics is an analogical metaphysics, which understands phenomenal reality as participating in the power of Being as Such in such a way that that power is manifested and represented in the phenomenal world.  This is the classical metaphysics of the Catholic tradition, and the foundation of its sacramental system.  It has the advantage of taking a very positive view of phenomenal reality, seeing everything as a participation in the creative life of God, and can certain ground a natural law ethics which limits sovereignty and makes the ripening of being the principal moral imperative. We no longer believe that this metaphysics is adequate. First of all, by allowing mythological language and other symbolism which cannot help but depict God as a being, and which depicts God as acting in spacetime, and more specifically as a sovereign ruler whose commands constitute ethics, even an analogical metaphysics can leave intact the whole dynamic of divine command, human sin and disobedience, and the need for redemption which, except for the tiny minority with the philosophical sophistication to grasp the analogy of Being, unfolds much as it does in the context of a univocal metaphysics. 

Second,  the most developed analogical metaphysics, that of Thomas Aquinas, grounds the analogy of Being in the divine act of creation ex nihilo, in which God gives creatures a created share in His Being. This is, on the one hand, not a fully coherent concept, since it is not clear how their can be a created share of something uncreated. On the other hand, it covertly preserves or reinstates divine sovereignty and decisions at the level of the creative act, which is why Thomism, especially the purer Dominican forms of Thomism, have always, in the end, been pushed back and given ground to what amount to univocal language about God and Being, divine command language about morality, and to a political theology of sovereignty. This is reflected in the affirmation of Christological doctrines which affirm that it is possible to be both divine (Necessary) and human (contingent) and in the doctrine of “accidental” theosis in which human beings take on the form of divinity by means of the grace which allows them to love God with God’s own love. This makes beatitude seem possible, but in reality contingency is not overcome, and cannot be, either on earth or “in heaven,” for the simple reason that Necessary Being is by nature One and any multiplicity would destroy its Necessity by making it dependent on its divine other. The beatific vision, precisely to the extent that it is a vision of God, is also a profound knowledge of our own limitation and of the injustice we have committed in struggling to transcend these limitations. Indeed, in order to make his Paradiso credible as a state of beatitude, a poet as great as Dante had to strip those who entered it of their memory of their sins, and deprive them of any knowledge that higher degrees of beatitude might have been possible. 

An analogical metaphysics, finally, while it does not ground a sovereign who creates a legal and moral order by “deciding the exception” through divine/revolutionary violence, does imply the possibility of the God Man who brings into being a divided sovereignty in which the representative of His divine nature –the spiritual lord– teaches, sanctifies and governs in accord with the natural and divine law while the representative of his human nature –the temporal lord– while obligated to govern in accord with natural law, cannot be compelled to do so.  The result to defer justice indefinitely to a beyond in which it is still impossible because our contingency and finitude, which are the occasion of choices which lead to injustice, remains intact. 

It is in this context that we must acknowledge the wisdom of Jiang Shigong (Jiang 2018, 2020) when he argues that  that it is necessary to extricate the communist project from Christian political theology, which begins by demanding theosis, and ends by deferring even the much more modest goal of social justice to the beyond. That said, it is also vitally important that we not allow the communist ideal to become a means of legitimation for what amount to restored civilizational empires.   This is, in effect, what Jiang is arguing when he reduces communism to a xinxue or “learning of the heart,” which draws on historic Chinese traditions but rejects any continuity at all with liberalism and democracy. While the Dharmic and Taoic traditions have much to teach us about living with and growing through finitude and contingency, the humanistic tradition is not wrong to value overcoming contingency to the extent and in the way we actually can, by achieving rational autonomy and collective self determination, by creating effective legal protections for liberal rights and mechanisms which hold leaders accountable for their actions.

With this in mind we propose an “equivocal metaphysics” which argues that God is in an entirely different sense than phenomenal reality. God is the Power of Being as Such, the Beauty of which draws into existence, acting as and only as final cause.  The phenomenal world, on the other hand ex-ists it is in a limited and qualified sense outside of Being. The phenomenal world is subject to cause and effect, and in this sense quite literally matters. It can, with the proper structures, be perceived.  And everything in the phenomenal world  seeks Being in countless ways, in the beautiful but ultimately inadequate forms of thermodynamic stability, nutrition, growth and reproduction, sensation and locomotion, intellect and will, and ultimately wisdom and love. But phenomena are only partly real. 

This metaphysics, in turn, at once allows us to ground a natural law ethics which requires that we act in such a way as to ripen being, to help all things to grow and develop in accord with their natures, while rendering the concept of sovereignty logically impossible. On the one hand, we all seek Being as best we can and we have an obligation to do so in the most effective way possible. On the other hand, while drawing things into Being through her incredible Beauty, God has no other effects in the phenomenal world. Authentic power, furthermore, consists not in command and control but rather in challenging and nurturing. And if even God is not sovereign, how can any human, or collectivity of human beings, or human organization be? This gives us everything we need to make the argument against Capital and also shows that the historic socialist and communist obsession with state power was not simply in error, but was based on an illusion. It also, as we will see, helps us understand organizing in a new way. 


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