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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