One of the most striking symptoms of our civilization’s current inability to understand itself –and to understand the broader humanity of which it is an expression– is the shock and dismay expressed every time another teen or twenty-something runs off from a college town in Mississippi or a working class housing estate in East London to join the terrorist cult that blasphemously calls itself a Caliphate and the “Islamic State in Syria and the Levant”, and which is giving the “bad boys” of the last century a run for their money in the intensity, if not the scale, of their terror. How could young people with such a bright future and such an impressive moral profile do something so stupid and so morally reprehensible?
There is, to be sure, some good analysis out there of the specific challenges faced by young Muslims especially in Europe but also in the US. And anyone concerned with this issue would be right, as a number of recent articles have suggested, to acquaint themselves with the emerging “jihadist girl power” subculture. There is even, as with nearly everything else today, a game, called Alfa-Arkiv, built around the subculture, which in turn is the sequel to a five year long alternate reality game centered around the Junko Junsui.
My concern here, however, is with the much broader claim made by both many Islamists and by self-critical advocates of “Western” humanistic secularism, that the option of so many young people for Islamism represents a global failure of the Western ideal of freedom and a sign that our civilization is being eclipsed by Islam. This line of thought is exemplified above all by Michel Houellebecq’s novel Soumission, which recounts an electoral takeover of a culturally exhausted France in the near future –2022 by a nonviolent, but ultimately quite radical Islamist party. The argument, broadly speaking, runs something like this: Humanistic secularism, having failed to deliver on its promise of rational autonomy and the creation of a political subject which can make humanity the master of its own destiny, is exhausted, and humanity is abandoning it for the still vigorous promise of divine justice offered by Islam.
Those familiar with my work will know that I believe that the first part of this thesis is at least partially true. The theosis promised by humanistic secularism through the creation of a political subject which makes humanity the master of its own destiny is impossible. Neither the rationally autonomous individual, nor the democratic state, nor the “people” as ethnos or nation, nor the Communist Party, can become the “unique subject-object” of the cosmohistorical evolutionary process and thus, in effect, divine. Not only for the individual, as Lukacs recognized, but for the collective, contingency is inescapable.
This does not, however, mean that the humanistic secular ideal is entirely exhausted, nor that Islamism represents a fundamental alternative to which the best and brightest of our young people are suddenly flocking, the horrific crimes of the so-called Caliphate notwithstanding. On the contrary, I would like to argue, ISIL is an expression of the humanistic secular ideal, and specifically of its populist variant. The attraction of ISIL is an expression of the enduring vitality but also the internal contradictions of this ideal. Addressing both the specific challenge of promising young people joining a murderous cult and the broader civilizational crisis of which this is a symptom requires that we address those contradictions specifically.
Our first step in demonstrating this claim is to point out that humanistic secularism is not and never has been the dominant ideal in our civilization. It is, rather, a critical subcurrent, an altermodernity, not only in its revolutionary nationalist/populist and socialist forms, but also in its more moderate liberal and democratic expressions. Our civilization is not and never has been ordered to the cultivation of rational autonomy or the collective self determination of the people as demos or ethnos or of the working classes. It is ordered to an attempt to transcend finitude and thus achieve a kind of divinity by means of scientific, technological, and economic progress. While this progress has sometimes been carried out under the auspices of a nationalistic or socialist state which made the false promise that it would, in the end, contribute to the higher ideal of making humanity the master of its own destiny, it is now carried out largely by global Capital which has become an increasingly autonomous force, independent not only of states but of historic ruling class networks. The hegemonic ideal of our civilization is not humanistic but rather technocratic secularism.
It is, furthermore, this ideal which is spent. Climate change coupled with a failure to develop new sustainable energy sources mean that rather than technological utopia our future seems instead to portend ecological collapse. New technologies are making human labor, even skilled human labor, increasingly redundant while ever more rigorous market discipline is transforming essentially all human beings, even the highly privileged, into batteries. While it might be argued that our current direction is more nearly defined by Capital than by the technocratic ideal it serves, and that a different economic structure might channel investment into precisely the sustainable energy sources that we need, and leverage the power of automation to liberate humanity once and for all from drudgery, this proposal itself represents a break with the technocratic ideal, a decision to subject technological progress and economic accumulation to specifically human ends, and thus an option for humanism. This is, fundamentally, what historic socialism was about. And it ended either in the triumph of the technocratic means over the humanistic end or in a slower pace of growth, especially at the level of the third industrial revolution and beyond, that rendered the socialist countries vulnerable to eventual defeat by global Capital.
There has, to be sure, been a resurgence of support for technocratic secularism in the form of transhumanism and the New Atheism, a phenomenon we will address in our next article. But very few people any longer believe that science and technology will makes us into gods. The divinity promised by technocratic secularism is not an authentic theosis which transforms us into the power of Being as such, but rather the “bad infinity” which extends everywhere and forever the suffering of emptiness craving a self-subsistence and self-determination it cannot have.
Islamism –not Islam, but Islamism– is a variant of humanistic secularism. Specifically, it is a form of populism which suggests that the Muslim ummah, with or without a reconstituted Caliphate, is in fact the collective subject which humanity has sought, which will redeem it from the instrumentalizations of Industry, Capital, and Empire. That the subject, in this case, is defined in religious rather than specifically ethnic or national terms does not make the ideology any less secular. It is a political subject acting through worldly means –not a restoration of the historic Islamic civilization which integrated a commitment to the creation of a just society with a complex spirituality which proposed a path by which human beings could develop in such a way that they are capable of such justice. This is true of all Islamisms to some extent, though those of Sufi or Shia provenance conserve far more of the authentic spiritual heritage of Islam than the Salafism of ISIL, al-Qaeda, or the Taliban, which are founded explicitly on the rejection of Islam’s Sufi and Shia spiritual heritage.
So what are these intelligent, morally serious young people actually doing when they run off to join ISIL? First, a point of clarification is required. They are not running off in order to join a murderous terrorist cult. That, at least, is not what they understand themselves to be doing. They have been lied to so often by their governments and by corporations and even by the leaders of their own communities and religious institutions that they do not believe what they see and hear about the “Islamic State.” They don’t understand that even those who lie most of the time sometimes tell the truth.
So what are these young people doing? Exactly what we want our best and the brightest to do: choosing a life of meaning and purpose, of seeking wisdom, doing justice, and ripening Being. It is just that the opportunities to actually live such a life, especially in a concentrated, intensive, consecrated way, are few and far between.
Human beings have many defining needs and desires, many latent potentials which set us apart from other forms of being, but all, from the lowest to the highest, can be encompassed in one single drive. As Sartre said, humanity is the desire to be God. Being finite we are aware of the infinite. Being contingent and dependent on other beings for our survival, we seek to be Necessary, having the power of Being in ourselves. We are also intensely aware of the fact that our desire to be God transcends our natural capacities and is possible, if at all, only by becoming something other than ourselves: i.e. only by dying.
Now not every one thinks this, of course. And there are other ways of articulating the truth behind the formula I have sketched out above. But everything everyone does is a way of seeking Being. And the more intellectually cultivated, morally serious, and spiritually developed we are the more explicit our quest for Being. The best among us seek to live lives of meaning and purpose, seeking wisdom, doing justice, and ripening Being.
Now it is part of the human predicament that we will never find a fully satisfying or adequate way of doing this. If we did we would be not the desire to be God, but God Herself. But each civilization makes it both possible and difficult to lead a meaningful way of life in historically specific ways. I am not sure that we live in a uniquely difficult time, but it is difficult enough that even the very best, perhaps especially the very best and especially when they are very young, can make very bad decisions.
There are, to be sure, some of the best and the brightest who still believe in the technocratic secular ideal and who become scientists and engineers and entrepreneurs “like they are supposed to.” But precisely to the extent that they actually believe in this ideal they will, ultimately, push it to its logical, godbuilding conclusion. It is the best and the brightest of our scientists and engineers and entrepreneurs that, precisely because they understand that humanity is the desire to be God, who are most likely to usher in the genetically modified and/or information-theoretically uploaded transhumanist/cyberpunk dystopia in which the rest of us are obsolete and which, therefore, we fear. It is not in spite of but rather because of the visionary greatness of its founders that Google, its slogan notwithstanding, is gradually becoming “evil.”
The rest opt for one or another of the available humanistic alternatives: liberalism or democracy or populism or socialism, enriched by an engagement with older spiritual traditions or not, which they study at universities to which access continues to rapidly increase but the quality and rigor of which continues to decline ever more rapidly.
The narrative of both revolutionary politics, whether of the Left or the Right, since the eighteenth century and of the Youth Culture since the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s, is fundamentally the story of people who bought the promises of the one variant of the Saeculum only to discover that they were empty lies and then turned towards another secular ideology in its place. The older revolutionary politics organized the working classes and the peasantry to leverage structural changes which would at once improve their own lives and allow revolutionary elites to live the humanistic variant of the secular ideal, creating political subjects which could make them into the “unique subject-objects” of the cosmohistorical evolutionary process. The newer Islamist politics recognizes the failure of historic socialism but proposes instead that Islam can redeem humanity from the instrumentalizations of Industry, Capital, and Empire and return us to ourselves.
The youth culture, which extends from the “Sixties” through the emerging jihadist girl power subculture, is a specific variant of this configuration. Since the end of the second world war wave after wave of students from the working class and petty bourgeoisie have been assured that obtaining a university education would ensure them a good life, something the best and the brightest read to include a life of meaning and purpose. Instead they have been delivered, at best, a more privileged proletarianization, and at worse mass unemployment. The Sixties represented a rejection of this fate, either by dropping out, something which turned out not to be economically viable for most, or by yet another attempt at global revolution.
As a late baby boomer, and more precisely a member of Generation Jones (the cohort born between about 1957 and 1964), I came of age at the tail end of this period. It was already apparent in the 1970s that the movement politics of the older members of our generation was not going to unleash a revolution. It also, however, seemed in the 1970s that global consumer capitalism was doomed both for ecological reasons and because national liberation movements were chalking up victory after victory: Angola, Mozambique, and Guinea Bissau, Ethiopia, Iran, and Nicaragua … The US economy seemed permanently stalled and beyond help. Many of us settled into the long hard work of building community organizations and labor unions. A few of us situated that work in the context of broader, more revolutionary commitments, struggling to rebuild a communist movement which had clearly gone badly astray, often in dialogue with older spiritual traditions.
Over the course of the 1980s, as the Soviet Union collapsed and the national liberation movements retreated in the face of Global Capital, and as information technology both gave capitalist economies a real value added boost and provided the technology necessary for a truly integrated global capital market, our now aged “new left” collapsed.
It was just precisely this vacated niche that radical Islamism was able to capture. Islamism of various kinds, to be sure, had been around for some time. The Wahabi movement began in the eighteenth century as a response to the crisis of Islamic civilization in the face of emerging capitalism and European imperialism, arguing that Islam had failed because it had compromised too much with the civilizations it encountered. This became, ironically, the ideology of the Saudi state created in alliance with British and later American interests for which it became an increasingly powerful junior partner in the exercise of global Empire. Other Islamisms shared much with both European traditionalism of the sort advocated by Julian Evola and Rene Guenon, which saw secular civilization as corrupt and in decline, and with the national liberation ideologies of Franz Fanon.
As humanistic secular ideologies and especially communism retreated, compromised by their concessions to technocracy and bureaucracy and by the impossibility of creating a political subject which makes humanity the master of its own destiny while at the same time not just safeguarding but actually advancing individual rational autonomy, Islamism moved into the niche. It is not surprising that many of the best and brightest of the Millennial generation, recognizing that the promises of the Saeculum were hollow and wanting to devote themselves to a life of meaning and of the struggle for justice, would find their way into the Islamist camp. And it is not surprising that some would find it impossible to believe that the most extreme groups, such as ISIL, were really as bad as the secular capitalist media claim them to be, just as many from my generation refused to believe the worst about Mao and the Gang of Four (I still struggle with this) and many in my father’s generation (outside the US) and my grandfather’s generation even here found it difficult to believe that Stalin, who helped save Europe from Hitler, also gave old Adolf a run for his money in the evil villain sweepstakes.
This does not, however, mean that it is inevitable that the best and the brightest run off to join terrorist cults like ISIL. There is an alternative, but it requires, first of all, a more radical self-criticism of humanistic secularism than has yet been undertaken and a renewal of three practices which have fallen very much into crisis: the practice of liberal education, the practice of institutional organizing, and the practice of authentic spiritual discipline.
This radical self-criticism of humanistic secularism is, fundamentally, what the broad religious left which emerged in the postwar period and which peaked in the 1970s and 1980s was groping towards. We must at once affirm our desire to be God and its manifestation in secular struggles for rational autonomy and democratic self-determination –including the self-determination of the working class, which Marx was quite right to recognize as the definitive expression of humanity in its creative species being– and recognize that this desire is quite impossible apart from becoming something other than we are, and thus dying. We will address this question more fully in a forthcoming article, but the religious left is defined by a simultaneous commitment to the humanistic secular ideals of not just justice but also rational autonomy and self-determination (that is what makes it different from traditional messianisms or from some manifestations of the religious right which also have a concern for justice) and an argument that these aims can be realized only in a broader spiritual context, whether theistic (as argued by most Jewish, Christian, Muslim, and Hindu advocates of the trend) or not (as argued by many Buddhists). Specifically, the construction of a political subject can contribute to the quest for rational autonomy and collective self-determination. But only spiritual discipline can help us grow towards the God we want to be.
Most historic expressions of the religious left have fallen short of this ideal. Those which criticized humanistic secularism from the vantage point of an historic spiritual tradition, such as the Integral Humanism of Jacques Maritain, failed to take seriously enough the humanistic, and specifically communist, critique of Capital. Those which approached the problem from a secular perspective, such as much critical theory and the now vigorous “atheistic theology” of thinkers as diverse as Zizek, Agamben, and the late Derrida recognized the impossibility of the deification which Marx sought in communism, but opted for what might be called a tragic sense of life rather than real spiritual engagement. And the theology of liberation, which was rigorous in both its spiritual and political commitments, avoided, for the most part, engaging the difficult philosophical and theological questions posed by the encounter between socialism and humanity’s historic spiritual traditions.
My own work attempts to overcome these limitations. Specifically, I argue in my forthcoming work The Ways of Wisdom for both an active embrace of the humanistic secular recognition that humanity is the desire to be God and a clear recognition that the realization of this aim transcends any political means, though the political aspirations to which it gives rise, for rational autonomy and collective self-determination, are necessary and just. I also argue for a spirituality which learns not only from humanism but from all of humanity’s spiritual traditions and which integrates an active commitment to the struggle for justice with a recognition that it is precisely our failures along that path which teach us the deepest spiritual truth: that Being is neither substance nor subject, but rather relational, transformative generativity. It is only when we recognize this truth that we become truly capable of freedom, democracy, and communism.
All of which brings us back to what we need to do in order to help the best and brightest of our young people find a more constructive expression of the desire for a life of meaning and devotion than running off to join ISIL. In order to realize their potential to serve and to lead, the best and the brightest need three things. First, they need to be able to take and defend independent positions regarding questions of meaning and value, politics and strategy, in the context of a full mastery of humanity’s ongoing, millennia long deliberation regarding these questions. These are the capacities historically cultivated by liberal education. But while more people than ever have access to what claims to be a liberal education, in reality they get nowhere near enough to make an informed judgment regarding why humanity’s great spiritual and revolutionary movements of the past, whether we are talking about Islam or communism, ran up against insuperable limits. They are thus unprepared to help humanity take the next steps. What is more important, they lack the longue durée perspective which helps them understand that while they can and will make a difference, their aim (which is ultimately theosis even if they are atheists) is realized only in eternity and that visible progress takes lifetimes and centuries and significant progress millennia. We need leaders for whom Chou-en lai, not Mao Zedong, is the ideal. The former, when asked what he thought about the significance of the French revolution, remarked that it was still far too early, two centuries later, to tell.
Second, the best and the brightest need to be trained organizers. They need to understand that power is the ability to get things done, that this requires people, a goal, and a plan. The larger the number and the more cultivated the people, the higher the goal and the more sophisticated the plan the more power can be built over the very longue durée, which is all that matters. They must learn to do individual relational meetings to identify potential leaders, map out their interests and relationships and assess their leadership potential. They must know how to appeal to the existing interests and mobilize the existing networks of the leaders they identify while helping those leaders grow and develop across all dimensions. And they must understand how to deploy thee leaders to reorder existing institutions to higher ends and to create new institutions which carry further humanity’s fundamentally theotic project.
Finally, they must themselves be extraordinary people not just intellectually and in terms of their political skills, but spiritually, in terms of what they want and who they are. They must understand that while all aims have value because all participate in Being, they will never rest content except in the one End which is the aim and purpose of all things. And they must order their affections accordingly. They must overcome the illusion that they or anyone else or anything else (including God) exists in itself and recognize that God or Being is neither substance nor subject but rather pure, relational, transformative generativity. And they must therefore seek this generativity rather than any form of self-subsistence or self-determination. It is only then that we are authentically Being and authentically self-determining. And they must integrate both a connatural knowledge of these truths and a right ordering of their affections with the ability to live with joy in the world of finitude and contingency in which we are all, for better or worse, trapped.
This is the real challenge presented to us by the stories of young people stealing off to Syria to join a murderous cult. Our aim should not be deradicalization but rather to capture this revolutionary and mystical aspiration, itself pregnant with transformative potential for humanity, but also quite dangerous if not cultivated in the right ways and to nurture it and channel it into an so that it becomes an authentic force for seeking wisdom, doing justice, and ripening Being.
Our existing academic, political, and religious institutions have, unfortunately, largely abandoned this work. We will have to create new ones. That is what Seeking Wisdom is all about.