Race, American Civil Religion, and the Endgame of Capital

This season of darkness and of lights is traditionally a time of taking stock, both spiritually and politically, of assessing where we are and asking where we are –and ought to be– going. And we cannot help but enter this season deeply troubled. This year brought a Republican victory in the US general elections and the verdicts in the Brown and Garner cases which cannot help but draw attention to the constitutive and enduring role of racism in the United States.

If we are to understand these events properly, however, we must situate them against the background of both the specific character of racism in the United States, the broader period of civilizational crisis which we are now entering, the structural dynamics of fully realized global Capital, and the constellation of forces which has been in place since the election of Barack Obama and the Great Recession. The conclusions at which we will arrive are sobering, but we must come fully to terms with them if we are to move forward.

There have, historically, been two broad positions regarding the nature of racism in the United States. The caste/class theory, rooted in the interpretive sociological tradition but embraced in only slightly revised form by much of the moderate left, regards racism as fundamentally a means of legitimating the system of planation slavery, in the context of which most (though not all) African Americans were slaves by birth. The Civil War and Emancipation ended slavery but not the plantation system and Jim Crow replaced slavery as a way of controlling African American labor. It is only with the mechanization (and liquidation) of Southern agriculture and the resultant Great Migration that the social conditions for transcending racism emerged. And even then, the existence of split labor markets and discrimination which kept African Americans in nonunionized, lower skill, lower technology sectors slowed progress. But within a few decades, as a result of of the Civil Rights Movement, explicit discrimination based on race became illegal in the United States. This does not mean that racism has disappeared but, according to advocates of this theory, such as William Julius Wilson, whose Declining Significance of Race is the principal contemporary statement of it, racism is no longer the principal problem facing African Americans. Rather, it is the fact that most are resource poor and cannot take advantage of the opportunities opened up by the Civil Rights Movement. It is, in other words, a question of class rather than racial oppression.

There is much to commend this theory. Among other things, Wilson is quite right that whatever affirmative action may have accomplished, it is not enough to address the situation of many inner-city African Americans. But Wilson’s approach offers little to help us explain either the Ferguson or Staten Island verdicts, or the reaction of most of “white” America to these verdicts.

The second approach to the problem of racism in the United States considers racism as an ideology which legitimates national oppression. According to this view African Americans are a colonized people, either an emerging nation in their own right or part of a larger Pan-African nation. The struggle against racism is fundamentally a struggle for national liberation understood as self-determination, up to and including the right of secession. The question, of course, is just who and what would “secede” from what and how? Advocates of the Black Nation thesis, such as the Communist Party of the USA, historically argued for the existence of an African American homeland in the  Black Belt South which would be the subject of such a national liberation struggle, not unlike anticolonial struggles in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. Pan-Africanists have generally regarded historically Black territories as part of a larger Pan-African civilizational domain, leaving the political content of “self-determination” for the Pan-African nation rather more difficult to define.

This thesis too has merits. Clearly African Americans constitute a people and self-determination as a people is integral to transcending racism. And how ever unproductive polemics between Pan-Africanists and Black Nationalists may sometimes have become, sorting out what constitutes a shared African and African diasporic identity and what is unique in the Black American experience is an important task.

This said, it was never clear how control of the poorest, most underdeveloped parts of the South, however much they may have been the cradle of the emerging African American people, would constitute just compensation for centuries of slavery and oppression.  And “soft” implementation of the self-determination agenda, relinquishing nominal control of major city governments and related institutions to African Americans, where these institutions lack adequate resources to perform their basic functions, is nothing more than a neocolonial ploy. Self-determination: yes! But what can it mean in the present period, under the social conditions which have actually emerged?

The fact is that these two theses are neither incompatible nor, even when brought together, fully adequate. From a material standpoint, the oppression of African Americans has taken a variety of forms, from plantation slavery, through share-cropping supported by Jim Crow, to exclusion from the more highly skilled, unionized sections of the proletariat. It is also true that, as William Julius Wilson has argued, these precapitalist forms of exploitation and split labor markets have been very largely transcended, so that those African Americans with access to capital, economic, political, social, or cultural, can in fact advance significantly, while those without these resources are left behind. And these diverse forms of economic exploitation were the product of the conquest of Africa and the formation of a colonial plantation society in the Caribbean Basin, something which formed an integral part of the process of primitive accumulation of Capital, especially for England and North America. This, in turn, gives the process of African American ethnogenisis an anti-imperialist character which it shares with other national liberation struggles.

Such an analysis, however, leaves out two factors which are essential to understanding racism in the United States. First, from the economic vantage point, it says little about the current economic trajectory of the African American community, and especially the part of that community which has been “left behind.” Second, it misses the specific form which racist ideology takes in the United States, and thus leaves opaque the forms of oppression still suffered even by those African Americans who have benefited significantly from the Civil Rights Movement, affirmative action, etc.

With respect to the first factor, the critical development is the gradual emergence on a global scale of mass surplus populations. As information technology advances, routine human labor, even skilled labor, becomes redundant and more and more of the population is simply incapable of being profitably exploited by Capital. This is the economic reality behind the genesis of what Girogio Agamben calls the homo sacer, human beings who, lacking any value to Capital, are progressively stripped of any juridical status whatsoever, so that they become fair game for those who, finding them a mere annoyance –or more likely a profound threat– choose to eliminate them.

While this process is just beginning, those African Americans who lack the assets to profit from affirmative action are among the very first populations in the United States to be affected by it. They lack the skills to be productively exploited and it is simply not worth the investment, from the vantage point of Capital, to provide them with such skills, since it is no longer a question of simply learning a trade or technical skill, but rather of becoming a high level innovator and problem solver. This same process is, however, also affecting other sectors of the population, including many so-called “whites” with higher skill levels and a history of occupying a more privileged –if still exploited– niche in the marketplace. These “whites,”  not surprisingly, have become increasingly anxious to defend their rapidly eroding privileges and prevent their own, ultimately inevitable transformation into surplus population effectively outside the Law of Capital,  which is ultimately the only law that matters.

Both the reduction of African Americans to the status of surplus population and the “white” resistance to their similar reduction takes the form of an invocation of the specific form racism which is peculiar to the United States. This is the imputation to all African Americans of what amounts to the status of hereditary felons.

This might at first seem like a bizarre thesis. Certainly no one, even the most rabid racist, actually goes around thinking about African Americans as hereditary felons. But that is because like all really effective ideological dynamics, this one is batin or hidden, and operates below the level of conscious awareness. In order to find evidence of it we must read deeply and between the lines

The text we must read is John Locke’s Two Treatises of Government.  Most of us have read it, to be sure, but most of us have also missed entirely what is being said. This is because, especially in the United States, the text is usually read  as an argument that human beings are endowed by their Creator with inalienable rights to life, liberty, and property, that governments exist to protect these rights, and that governments can be removed when they fail to do so. It is read, in other words, as the background text to the Declaration of Independence, which is regarded as a modest improvement on the original, substituting “the pursuit of happiness” for property. We rarely ask how or why the Creator endowed us with these rights.

When we begin to look more closely at the text, we discover that the foundational right, for Locke, is really that of property. One owns what one creates, and God created us, so we are His property. Because we are God’s property, no one can rightly kill, harm, restrain, or steal us. Even we can’t do these things. We can’t commit suicide and we can’t sell ourselves into slavery. And we enjoy a subsidiary property in the things with which we mix our own labor, or life, subject to God’s right of eminent domain.

Our liberty, therefore, is founded on our status as the property of another, i.e. on our condition of slavery to God. This is a peculiar way to ground liberty, but it would seem, at least, to rule out the enslavement of one human being by another. Except that it doesn’t.

John Locke was deeply implicated in the emerging institution of Plantation Slavery in North America and the Caribbean Basin and wrote the Constitution of the Carolina Colonies which permitted chattel slavery. We could, to be sure, simply dismiss this as inconsistency or hypocrisy. Neither is uncommon. But there is, as it turns out, a hermeneutic key hidden in Paragraph 23,, Chapter IV, of the Second Treatise which provides another way to legitimate slavery. Human beings cannot sell themselves to another, but there are those who have, however, “by fault forfeited  [their] own life, by some act that deserves death” and “he to whom he has forfeited it may, (when he has him in his power) delay to take it, and make use of him to his own service, and he does him no injury by it.”

Now it is not clear that Locke understood or intended this clause to legitimate a system which, in his time, was only beginning to emerge. But if one regards an individual as legitimately enslaved, while upholding the rest of Locke’s system, the implication can only be that the slave is a felon –indeed one worthy of capital punishment.

This might seem like it tells us more about Locke’s implicit racism than it does about racism in the United States today –until we realize that one of the enduring forms of racism, even after all the victories of the Civil Rights Movement and the election of a Black man as President of the United States, is the mass incarceration of Black Men and the subjection of the African American community as a whole, including its more privileged members, to arbitrary detention under circumstances when a “white” person would be unlikely to even be questioned, and to systematic police brutality of the sort which manifested itself in the Brown and Garner cases and the verdicts which followed.

The implication is simple but stark. Blacks may have served their sentence (slavery), but the status of felon endures and is indeed inherited. Every Black is regarded as, at root, a criminal and therefore a threat subject to “special attention” from the criminal justice system. It is this, I would argue, rather than any conviction of biological or cultural inferiority, which defines racist ideology in the US. Indeed, other subaltern peoples are subsumed under this criminal status by various mechanisms suitable to their situation. Latinos generally and Mexicans in particular become  “illegal immigrants,” when in fact no criminal law has been violated. Muslims become “terrorists,” etc.

One might, of course, look elsewhere for ideological sources of the mass criminalization of African Americans, such as the old idea of the Curse of Ham. But this was always a marginal idea and while it might still influence (explicitly or subliminally) a handful of extreme sectarians, the core form of racism in the US is, at the ideological level, at least, the idea that African Americans are not members of a common body politic which exists to protect rights they share with “whites” and everything else in God’s creation, but rather the very threat to these rights for which the body politic was established in the first place.

If this is the nature of the problem, then what is the solution? The answer is quite simple but, unfortunately, as the past six years have shown us, also fantastically difficult. Transcending racism means redefining what it means to be an American. We must leave behind the Lockean narrative in which America exists to protect the God given rights of (white) property owners and embrace in its place a de Toquevillian narrative of America as a communitas communitatum in which many different peoples have come together to create a shared space in which they can follow different and even competing ways, creating a complex, multilayered and multitextured narrative in which no one thread is dominant.

From this point of view the election of Barack Obama as President of the United States, both because he is an advocate of such an understanding of what it means to be an American and even more so because he is of African heritage, was a momentous occasion. It will be a long time before France elects a maghrebi President, or Germany a Turkish Chancellor. The United States is at least open to a discussion about what it means to be an American.

The fact that the President of the United States is head of state and not just head of government, in fact, makes the election still more momentous. One cannot be both homo sacer  and sacral monarch, which is a function the President of the United States fulfills while in office, even if he does not take on this status personally.

This said, those of us who celebrated Obama’s election as a victory may have overlooked the significance of one of the critical events during the course of his campaign: the Jeremiah Wright affair. Let me say to begin with that I utterly reject Rev. Wright’s comments on the role of Jews in the United States and on the nature of the state of Israel, as organically antisemitic. That said, the impact of the controversy on the Obama campaign and the Obama presidency was disastrous. When Obama was put in a position in which he had to reject his association with Rev. Wright he was forced, in effect, to distance himself from the African American religious tradition, of which Rev. Wright is a fairly mainstream member. A caveat was, in effect, added to Obama’s election victory reading “this electoral mandate shall in no way be interpreted as implying the official integration of the African American narrative, as embodied in the traditions of the African American Church, into the larger American narrative.”

The Jeremiah Wright controversy was, to be sure, not enough to entirely undercut the impact of Obama’s election on American Civil Religion. The chorus of post-election attacks claiming that he was not born in the United States, is secretly Muslim, etc., i.e. not a real American, demonstrates that the impact of his election was real. But the affair was enough to leave the President wounded and his mana drained. (It is a further commentary on the dynamics of American Civil Religion that the award of a Nobel Prize which was, to be sure, arguably premature, almost certainly hurt his standing more than it helped it at home.) And so now, six years later, a country which should have been basking in pride at how far it had coming in transcending its racist history by electing a Black Head of State is instead in midst of yet another racist relapse.

Where do we go from here? Clearly it is important to improve police recruitment, training, pay, and accountability, especially accountability to the communities served. But antiracist policies can only go so far towards transforming racist structures.

It is also important to continue to re-tell the American story.  I think that there is good reason to believe that as Barack Obama leaves behind his imperial and sacral monarchic responsibilities, he will embrace the prophetic calling which has been his true vocation all along. He  may be far more powerful beyond the presidency than he has been in it, and if so then our story is about to rewritten in ways we can only imagine.

But African Americans cannot win this battle on their own. They need, rather, for Americans of European descent to begin to deconstruct the “white” identity we have embraced for too long. This is, in fact, a vacuous identity with no real ethnoreligious content. It is, indeed, an identity most of us were granted only on condition of relinquishing our authentic identities as Polish, Jewish, Italian, Sicilian, French, German, Irish, Scottish, and yes even English Americans. It is the identity of the property owner whose rights the state exists to protect against those outside the law. But in truth we are not those property owners and imagine that we are only at our own peril. We, too, are increasingly “surplus population.” We, too, are homo sacer. And it is only when we embrace both our authentic history and our emerging identity with and as the dispossessed and the radically excluded that we will be able to address what faces us in this, the final stage of Capital.  

And this brings us to our final task. Racist ideology cannot be defeated until its material basis has been overcome. We imagined that we had done this in ending slavery, sharecropping, and the split labor market. What we did not realize was that these targets fell so easily only because they were losing their value to Capital. (And of course the split labor market was overcome, at least in part, by abolishing its more privileged stratum).  Capital and its techne are rapidly liberating themselves from the need for human labor at all. We are all becoming redundant. And the idea that those who are unemployable (read unexploitable) are outside the protection of the law, are in fact what the law exists to protect property owners from in the first place: this is the  legal premise of the emerging Saeculum, a  premise which is racist at its leading edge  but  universal  in its ultimate implications. Defeating this idea and the Saeculum it sustains is the condition of any possible human future.



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Saecular Hegemony

Humanity now stands at a very specific juncture with respect to the struggle between Sanctuary and the Saeculum.  The stalemate between these two forces which dominated the great Silk Road Era from 200 BC-1800 CE has been broken and the Saeculum has become globally hegemonic.

Breaking this stalemate was, historically, the work of one  particular group of warrior tribes –the Germanic peoples, and especially the Normans– whose movement into Europe set in motion a process which, by way of the the Norman conquests, the Crusades, the Reconquista, and their prolongation into continuing through the conquest of Africa, the Americas, and much of Asia, led to the scientific and industrial revolutions, and eventually to the  hegemony of Global Capital under which we live today. At first this process was legitimated as a way of advancing the sovereignty of the Christian God, and of participating in His creative activity by means of ever more advanced technology and ever more efficient exploitation of human labor. This way found its expression in the diverse forms of Protestant Christianity, and its highest expression in Puritanism and the New Divinity. We call this way theistic secularism (Weber 1920/1968).  But soon humanity’s conviction of its own potential and power grew to the point that many began to believe that they could actually build God, or at least transcend finitude by means of scientific and technological progress and the economic development they make possible. This is the way that we are living today, the way of technocratic secularism (Tipler 1994). We are chained to this way by industrial technology and proletarianization and we live it whether we embrace it or not.

Over the course of roughly the same period the democratic impulse which had always been part of the axial tradition, but which had been eclipsed during much of the Silk Road Era by the reality of stalemate with the Saeculum began to reassert itself, especially in Europe. Peasants, emboldened by the rising value of labor power and the demographic collapse that followed the Black Death fought to liberate themselves from feudal obligations. Cities governed by guilds of artisans and merchants demanded and won self-government from the Holy Roman Empire and the Church (Anderson 1974). These movements almost always articulated their emerging understanding of what it means to be human in terms derived from the axial traditions. Joachism (de Lubac 1979/1981, Leff 1999, Reeves 1999), which proposed to replace the rule of priests and kings with a sort of monastic communism led by the spiritually most developed, and Radical Aristotelianism, which began to give political content to the ancient ideal of the philosopher king, are typical in this regard. But when these movements were repressed in the name of Divine Sovereignty they not surprisingly began to take on an increasingly secular identity, and to assert the already “divine” character of the human and even the material. What had been an axial “left” made a turn towards radical immanentism. It took 700 hundred years, but the popular messianisms of Joachim of  Fiore  Sabbatzi Zvi (Scholem 1973) on the one hand and the and idealist and materialist mysticisms of Amalric of Bena and David of Dinant (Dahm 1988) on the other eventually became, by way of Gersonides, Spinoza, Kant, and Hegel, together with countless movements of resistance and revolution by peasants, artisans, and the emerging proletariat, the dialectical and historical materialism of Marx and Engels and Lukcacs. This way we call humanistic secularism of which we will identify liberal, democratic, socialist, and populist variants.

The long epoch between the Revolutions of 1848 and the collapse of the Soviet Bloc (and secondarily the massacre at Tianamen, which put an end to any possibility of a constructive (re)engagement with either ideals or the terror of the Cultural Revolution) was dominated by two principal dynamics. On the one hand, in the metropoles, there was a struggle between technocratic and humanistic secularism. It would be easy to reduce this latter conflict to one between capitalism and socialism, given that Capital is now the principal instrument of the Saeculum and given the prominence, in the epoch between 1848 and 1989 of the socialist variant of humanism, which sought to make the working class, through the medium of the Communist Party, in to the unique subject-object of human history (Lukacs 1921/1971). But humanistic secularism has liberal and democratic and populist variants which focused less on transcending the market than on taming it –the liberal and democratic patterns– or on making the people, through the medium of the nation state, into the unique subject-object of human history –the way of a wide range of populisms from the national liberation movements on the left to fascism on the right.

This said, Lukacs (Lukacs 1953/1980) is quite correct that by 1848 it had become apparent that capitalism was incompatible with the liberal and democratic ideals, so that to the extent that humanistic secularism remained faithful to its metaphysical aspirations, it increasingly took on a socialist character. What Lukacs misses, however, are both the internal contradictions of the project and the inevitability and the horrific consequences of its alliance with technocratic secularism. Any collective political subject coherent and disciplined enough to act as the unique subject-object of human history would also, inevitably, be incompatible with meaningful individual rational autonomy (the liberal form of the humanistic ideal) or internal democracy (the democratic form) which were nonetheless integral to what humanists from Marx through Lukacs were trying to accomplish through socialism. Merely “organizing and directing the historical process,” furthermore, does not carry humanity across the boundary between contingency and necessity, especially in a universe which physics tells us will eventually become inhospitable to complex organization, life, and intelligence. It would be necessary, at the very least, to “organize and direct the entire cosmohistorical evolutionary process.” Thus the necessity of technological god-building, of the sort advocated by Bogdanov and Gorky and Lunacharsky (Rowley 1987). But once we make this move we are back on the terrain of technocratic secularism which is the terrain of univocity and terror.  It should thus come as no surprise that when, after liquidating its philosophical advocates, Stalin made the strategy of technological godbuilding into his principal strategy for socialist construction, the result was a complete liquidation of socialism’s humanistic aims and transformed socialism into an Alterimperial development strategy, and ultimately, as the constraints which socialism placed on development beyond a certain point became apparent, just a regional strategy for primitive capitalist accumulation.  Serious attempts to make it into something else, such as the Cultural Revolution, led to both economic disaster and a totalitarian nightmare surpassed only by NAZISM.

Fascism, which rose and fell during this epoch, should also be understood as yet another variant of humanistic secularism –as another attempt to create a political subject, in this case the people or the nation— which could carry humanity across the threshold between contingent and necessary being. Its internal contradictions were similar to those of socialism, but more intense,  as the romantic, irrationalist, populism on which it was based was openly hostile rather than simply objectively in tension with liberalism and democracy. “Liberated” from socialism’s ideological commitment to rational autonomy fascism actually offered itself as an Alterimperial development strategy,  (as one would expect from an ideology which was fundamentally an idolatry of the ethnos and the nation). And this meant becoming unconditionally devoted to the development of just precisely the kind of technological strategies of control which the philosophical advocates of fascism, such as Heidegger (Heidegger 1977), so decried. The results now define for humanity what it means to do wrong.

Meanwhile, on the peripheries, peasant and sometimes artisan sanctuaries resisted vigorously the penetration of capitalist relations of production into their “countrysides” and the incorporation of their homelands into rival Imperia among which the American Imperium was ultimately victorious (Hobsbawm 1958, Wolf 1969). These movements generally, though not always, articulated their aims in religious terms. Some gradually flowed together with democratic and socialist variants of humanistic secularism to produce the religious left which was so prominent in the 1970s and 1980s. Others, where social conditions and the internal dynamics of the religious traditions in question pulled in this direction, took on a fundamentalist cast.

This created the conditions for the much heralded “return of religion”  which dominated the final stages of this epoch (perhaps from the Second Vatican Council on) and which persisted after its conclusion, up until the crisis of 2007-2008. But the engagement between humanistic secularism and humanity’s great axial traditions proved tactical or strategic at best and was inadequate to address either the internal contradictions of humanistic secularism or of the religious traditions in question, which were deeply compromised by patriarchy and vulnerable to pronatalist and misogynist reaction.

A more profound engagement  between humanistic secularism and the axial traditions might have catalyzed an authentic self-criticism on behalf of humanistic secularism during the period when its internal contradictions were becoming apparent, allowing to it at once to reaffirm its metaphysical aspirations and to recognize their fundamentally religious character, situating the failure of the various humanistic secular projects in a broader historical context while allowing the conservation of humanism’s critical contributions: the insistence on rational autonomy, democratic participation, and the transcendence of generalized commodity production. 

Most of humanity’s great spiritual traditions, on the other hand, bear deeply the mark of patriarchy, so that even when they resist the Saeculum, they often do so in a way which leaves unquestioned the “original sin” which lies at its historical roots: the drive to  the achieve divinization by means of conquest (of the feminine) and sacrifice (of the human).  Humanistic secularism itself came late to its critique of patriarchy, but this critique was available by the 1970s (its most complete form being the work of Mary Daly, perhaps the most important philosopher and theologian of the late twentieth century, cf Daly 1984) and could have transformed sanctuaries which were themselves deeply corrupt and oppressive into authentic liberated zones and bases for resistance to Capital and the Imperium. More broadly, humanistic secularism, because of its respect for but distance from “science,” its development of sophisticated historical-critical and hermeneutic strategies, and its historic commitment to rational autonomy could have helped the axial traditions engage the sciences constructively, effectively breaking the back of fundamentalism, and develop pastoral strategies which respected the right –and cultivate the ability– of individuals to make their own decisions regarding fundamental questions of meaning and value. Despite some creative feminist theologies (Reuther 1974, 1994: Daly 1984, 1998) and creative work in biblical criticism (Gottwald 1979) and around the relationship between religion and science (Barbour 1974, 1997, 2000; Davies 1992, Haught 1995), there was limited doctrinal and institutional transformation at best. Some religious communities, such as the liberal Protestant churches, took all these challenges seriously, but only in the way they trained their clergy.  An increasingly literate laos was carefully sheltered from what was taught in theological faculties. Other communities, such as the Catholic Church, opted for engagement with the global poor in part because this allowed them to avoid engaging the question of patriarchy and the demands of a literate laos (Thibault 1971).



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Sanctuary and Saeculum: The Desire to Be God

Humanity is the desire to be God (Sartre, Jean Paul. Being and Nothingness, 1943: 556).

Being finite, we are aware of the infinite and seek it without limit. Being contingent, dependent on other beings for our existence, we seek the power of Being as such and seek it absolutely.

Our history is fundamentally the history of this seeking, and of the distinct ways of being human to which it has given rise.

There are many ways, but they can, historically, be divided into two broad paths. The first is rooted in the recognition that while all things participate in the divine –in the power of Being as such– the boundary between contingent and necessary Being is impermeable. Being human means cultivating and ripening Being, our own and that of others, which is all ultimately the same Being, and not real ours. Some tributaries of this path argue that deification is simply impossible and that we must, in the end, learn to live with our contingency and dependence. Others argue that if we allow ourselves to be stretched far enough, recognizing that the Self is empty and becoming willing to lose it, we can achieve a kind of connaturality with the divine. In either case, the phenomenal world is sacred, a portal to the divine which must be be respected and nurtured. But there is nothing we can do with it or to it that will liberate us from our condition of (inter)dependence. This is the way of indigenous and aboriginal wisdom. It is also the way of the great axial traditions which emerged after 800 BCE: Hellenism, Buddhism, Hinduism, Confucianism, Taoism, and Judaism and its derivatives.

The second path, on the other hand, seeks divinization by means of innerworldly civilizational progress. This is the way of the great sacral monarchies of the Bronze Age and of the great Iron Age empires of the Qin and the Hellenistic-Roman world. And it is the way we are living today, whether we believe in it or not, a way which emerged out of the Norman conquests, the Crusades, and the Reconquista, which flourished as a result of the scientific and industrial revolutions, and which seeks to transcend finitude by means of scientific and technological progress and the economic development they make possible.

The first of these paths we call Sanctuary. It is focused on seeking wisdom, doing justice, and ripening Being wherever we find it. In so doing we create sanctuaries, places where we encounter, nurture, and are nurtured by the sacred.

The second path we call the Saeculum, and Patriarchy and Imperium and Capital are its instruments.

Sanctuary however, cannot be identified with Religion or the Saeculum with all things secular. The Saeculum seeks divinity by way of conquest, sacrifice, and exploitation, extracting and concentrating for itself the power of Being in the hope of eventually transcending finitude. And the first conquest was that of women by men, a conquest which was historically identical with humanity’s first acts of enslavement and instrumentalization.

Religion is like Sanctuary in that it seeks the power of Being as such, wherever it finds it. But in a world already darkened by the conquest of women and the sacrifice of human, a world of warlord states and dependent peasant villages as well as the later world of Imperium and Capital, we will find the power of Being as such –however temporarily enslaved and deformed– in the patriarchal and the imperial and the exploitative for the simple reason that Nothing exists without it. In a world already darkened by the Saeculum, most sanctuaries are also darkened and darkened sanctuaries are places of great danger, serving as they do the interest of the Saeculum while pretending to seek and respect and nurture the sacred.

The desire which gave birth to the Saeculum, on the other hand, is as holy as that which gives birth to Sanctuary: it is the desire for God. And the whole matrix of secular activity is, in substance, nothing other than a nursery for Being. Sanctuary is here too, especially where those engaged in secular activity recognize in their labor not simply an extension of Imperium or an accumulation of Capital but rather a ripening of Being. And so in addition to darkened sanctuaries we find illumination in the secular.

The issue between the two paths is, ultimately, ontological. At the ontological level it is the difference between an analogical and a univocal metaphysics. Sanctuary recognizes that not everything exists in the same way –that in particular for anything to exist in the way we do, as contingent beings dependent on others, something must have the power of Being in itself. In order to exist we must participate in this Being. But we cannot, no matter what we do, actually become Being, at least not in essence. Or, to put the matter in the somewhat different terms preferred by Buddhism and other ways of negation, nothing has inherent existence. We live in each other’s embrace. That which allows existence is the very negation of self-possession or substance of any kind.

Saeculum, on the other hand, is predicated on what I will argue is the false claim that all things exist in the same way, that Being is univocal. There are, however, two very different forms of this error. The dominant form sees only contingent being, and then asks whether or not there is already one of these beings which is infinitely powerful Being to which the only reasonable response is one of absolute submission. Those that answer yes comprise what we call the Theistic Saeculum, which includes most Protestantisms and at least some Asharite Islam). Those who answer no and then dedicate themselves to building God (or getting as close as the laws and constants of physics will allow us) comprise the Technocratic Saeculum.

But it is also possible to recognize the conceptual distinction between contingent and necessary Being but then confuse participation in the power of Being as such with possession of that power –to mistake contingent being for Being as such. This error is a particular danger for those who, intensely aware of how many sanctuaries have become darkened return to secular activity and seek –and find– the sacred there. This is the way of the Humanistic Saeculum, a way which is largely in occultation at present, but which was of great significance in the epoch immediately preceding our own.

But when we say that the difference between Sanctuary and Saeculum is ontological, we do not mean that it is simply a contest of metaphysical theories, or even ideologies, though it is also that. The struggle between the paths is fought out pyschosexually, politically, economically, and technologically and, perhaps, even ecologically and demographically. Psychosexually the struggle is between creative orientations which understand sexuality as sacrament and patriarchal formations which repress and control and sublimate the feminine. Politically the struggle is between building and exercising power (the power to do and to Be) on the one hand and command and control on the other. Economically the struggle is between investing in human development and investing in service of accumulation. Technologically the struggle is between nurturing matter’s immanent drive towards complexity and organization (hortic and alchemical technologies) on the one hand and breaking down existing forms of organization to release energy and do work (industrial technologies) on the other hand. Ecologically and demographically it is the difference between a k strategy which invests in a small number of offspring and ripens their capacity to Be and an r strategy which turns wombs into factories and generates as much raw labor power as possible.

Humanity now stands at a very specific juncture with respect to the struggle between Sanctuary and the Saeculum. But more on that in the next post …


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Is Humanistic Secularism Based on a Univocal Metaphysics?

Central to my philosophical and theological work in recent years has been the distinction between a univocal and an analogical metaphysics. The first regards all beings as existing in the same way. If there is a God, then this is only because one being is infinite, omniscient, omnipotent, etc. An analogical metaphysics, on the other hand makes a distinction between contingent and necessary Being. We, and everything we experience in the phenomenal world, are contingent, depending on our relationships with others for our Being.  But in order to explain why there is something rather than nothing, we need to have recourse to something which has the power of Being in itself. This, from the vantage point of an analogical metaphysics, is what we mean when we talk about God. (We will leave to one side, for now, the question of the Buddhist metaphysics of pattica samupada, or dependent origination, which argues that nothing has inherent existence, but that everything is simply dependent on everything else. The question of how this metaphysics relates to the analogical metaphysics of Esse, and of whether or not it can be reconciled with that metaphysics, will be addressed in a later essay.)

I have attributed a great deal of the problems of Asharite Islam and Augustinian Christianity (what I call theistic secularism) and technocratic secularism to their univocal metaphysics. I will not rehearse those arguments here. Suffice it to say that at best they lead only to what Hegel called the “bad infinity” –more of the same forever. And they set up a zero sum game in which our gain –even in the sense of authentic spiritual growth and development– is God’s loss or at least that of another being, and thus Sin. There can be no good but God in such a world, and God’s goodness can consist only in forgiving Sin which is, in effect, inscribed in the very finitude of our existence.

In this essay, however, I would like to explore a more difficult question, and one on which I have long remained undecided.  Is humanistic secularism, which aims to transcend contingency by creating a political subject (the rationally autonomous individual, the democratic state, the communist party, or the people) which makes humanity the master of its destiny also rooted in a univocal metaphysics.

This is an important question because it bears on “what went wrong” with the liberal, democratic, socialist, and populist projects –and thus on the extent to which the traditions to which these projects have given birth retain some enduring value –still have something important to teach humanity. It is also, of course, of great personal importance to me since  my work began with an attempt to carry the project of dialogue between the Catholic and dialectical materialist traditions to full integration, and while my work has grown beyond that, in search of a much broader synthesis between humanity’s great spiritual traditions, humanistic secularism, especially in its communist form, remains an important part of that synthesis. We must understand what was wrong with the communist project not in order to heap on it yet further condemnations, but in order to save what was healthy, sane, and whole and give it new life in the context of a new spiritual and civilizational ideal. And since metaphysics is the architectonic for all disciplines, we must understand where communism erred at the metaphysical level.

It would seem, at first, that humanistic secularism is not rooted in a univocal metaphysics, because its concept of Being is characterized not by what the Hegel called a “bad infinity” but rather by the capacity to bring forth all specific determinations from itself, determinations which eventually come to consciousness and find their realization in Spirit (for Hegel), in Communism (Marx), or in the various disclosures of Being in the history of specific peoples (Heidegger).  This concept of Being is much closer to that of Plato, Aristotle, and their Jewish, Christian, and Islamic commentators, and ultimately that of Thomas than it is to that of al-Ghazali or Duns Scotus or any of the rationalists or empiricists.

But all that this shows is that the univocity Being for humanistic secularism is not a univocity Being as contingent (if also, potentially, infinite).  What I would like to argue here is that humanistic secularism reduces all Being to Necessary Being, to Esse as such, effectively divinizing everything, which is what its requires, of course, as a civilizational project in which humanity, through the medium of some political organization, becomes, effectively divine.


The philosophical genealogy of this error is actually rather simple. It derives from a straightforward attempt to correct an error, or at least an ambiguity, in Aristotelian metaphysics. Specifically, Aristotle made a distinction between substance and accident.  Substances exist in themselves, accidents exist only in something else. Thus “cat” is a substance, because we encounter independently existing cats; “black” is an accident and exists only in cats, holes, or other things which are substances. It was, for Aristotle, who did not have a fully developed concept of Being, the essence of something which gave it substantial existence.

The difficulty with Aristotle’s formulation, of course, is that once we have a clear concept of Being, something which the dialectical tradition gained by its engagement with Judaism, with its concept of God as yhwh, the causative form of the verb to be, the idea of “substances” such as cats existing on their own begins to break down.  While we may mean different things when we say that something is a cat and that it is black, in neither case are we really saying that it exists by its own power.  This why, by the time we get, by way of the Radical Aristotelians of the late Silk Road Era,  to Spinoza, we have abandoned the substance/accident distinction in favor of the idea that there is only one Substance: Nature or God. Spinoza himself, wedded as he is to the task of remaking philosophy on the model of mathematics, veers dangerously close to a univocal monism in which the distinction between infinity and necessity is lost.  But Hegel, in insisting that Being be thought as Subject rather than Substance overcomes this difficulty and we arrive at the other side of the Enlightenment with an understanding of the phenomenal world as only apparently constrained by the limits of contingency.

The divine spirit must interpenetrate the entire secular life: whereby wisdom is concrete within it, and carries the terms of its own justification. But that concrete indwelling is only … ethical organization (Hegel, G.W.F. Encyclopaedia of Philosophy: Part Three: Philosophy of Spirit: Paragraph 552).

For Hegel there is only one Being and we are its conscious manifestation, God not only Incarnate but finally come to consciousness and fully possessed of its power in, and only in, the State. While it is customary to bash Hegel for identifying this State with the Prussian Monarchy, any credible reading of even the Philosophy of Right in the light of the larger trajectory of Hegel’s thought makes it clear that he envisions a constitutional monarchy with significant democratic participation and a social policy that prefigures both contemporary social democracy and associationalist and communitarian alternatives.

Marx extends this idea politically, but also makes the metaphysical  implications of Hegel’s move more explicit. Following Feuerbach, he regards the idea of God as simply a projection of humanity’s own species being, which is to say that humanity is, in fact, at least implicitly divine.  This alienation, as Marx calls it, is a product of social structures which leave humanity at the mercy of forces beyond its comprehension or control, the most recent of which is capitalism.  The socialization of the means of production and the transcendence of the market order undo this and leave humanity to realize its full divinity. That the aims of communism are every bit as metaphysical as they are economic or political is apparent from Marx’s formulation in the Paris Manuscripts, where he calls it :

… the definitive solution of the contradiction between man and nature and between man and man, the true solution of the contradiction between existence and essence, between objectification and self-realization, between freedom and necessity, between the individual and the species. Communism is the solution to the riddle of history and knows itself to be that solution (Marx 1844/1978: 84).


What this does, in effect, is to reduce the whole of phenomenal reality, at least as appropriated and organized by humanity once it has reached the stage of Communism, to the divine. Marx’s metaphysics, like that of his followers, is univocal and necessitarian. It is, in effect, not a true atheism, but rather a materialist pantheism, a point made decades ago by philosophical sovietologists such as Dahm and  others.

The question of whether or not Heidegger’s (anti)metaphysics is univocal or analogical is controversial (Tonner 2010, Harris 2012). And, as with Spinoza, Hegel, and Marx, it is probably most accurate to say that, if we divide the metaphysical field between Thomas Aquinas and john Duns Scotus, Heidegger will be uncomfortable in either camp. But our analysis has, however, defined a third camp, that of a univocity of being modeled not on the ordinary, contingent beings we encounter in the phenomenal world, with or without the possibility that one of them is infinite, but rather a univocity of Being as divine, and of the world with it. Here, however, it is the People (in the sense of the culturally specific Volk, not the plebian demos or laos) which is the medium through which Being reveals and realizes itself. Being, for the later Heidegger, manifests itself in a people only through the voice of the few who help it to discover its “god,” a sort of mythos under which Being is revealed.

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

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


This is the philosophical genealogy of humanistic secularism. But where did such an idea, which today seems so improbable that most scholars focus their attention on other, actually subsidiary aspects of Hegel, Marx, and Heidegger, come from? It would be easy to see humanistic secularism generally and socialism in particular as a product of the industrial, democratic, and scientific revolutions –of the growing weight of humanity in the universe. This is certainly the answer that an orthodox historical materialism would give and it is one which offers some hope for the eventual realization of the humanistic secular ideal. Hegel and Marx, this line of reasoning might suggest, were prescient but premature. Humanity is still very far from mastering the secrets of nature and history and becoming explicitly what it always has been implicitly.  But ultimately we will, and Marx’s communism will come to pass. Indeed, much as his own secularism was ultimately humanistic rather than technocratic, it was the conviction that science and industry would make it possible for humanity to transcend contingency which led Marx to opt for a “scientific” rather than “utopian” socialism, grounded in and dedicated to the full development of the productive forces rather than in the political action based on intellectual, moral, and spiritual development.

But we have seen where this option led. Historic socialism, as we have argued elsewhere, was a complex reality which integrated peasant and artisan resistance to capitalist development, the humanistic ideals of the intelligentsia –and the drive of what eventually became the technocracy to accomplish in colonial and semicolonial regions what capitalism had not:  industrialization and the social development it made possible. And it was these technocrats who, inevitably, came to dominate historic socialist societies, so that they have everywhere become an expression of an alternate path to technocratic secularism, with very little that is authentically humanistic about them. Indeed, in the longue durée, they look suspiciously like variants of a broader statist path to industrializations and capitalist development shared by nonsocialist societies such Germany and Japan, relying on a legitimation strategy which involved just modestly more humanistic than nationalist ideology, and then only for a little while.

But this analysis touches only the historic strategy of humanistic secularism, not the ideological complex itself, except perhaps to suggest that technocratic secularism is the truer path.  Either we believe that science and technology will eventually redeem us, whether we live in capitalist or socialist societies, which in any case look less and less different from each other, and abandon humanistic for technocratic secularism, or else we regard the alliance as an error and consider other strategies.

The first option, in the light of what we know about the “bad infinity” which the technocracy promises and the ecological crisis engendered by industrial technology, no longer seems credible. The latter option is more attractive. But while there is no shortage “postcommunist” thought which takes Marx’s humanistic ideals seriously, there has been no new strategy for communism. What someone like Zizek offers is not so much a strategy for authentic, humanistic communism as a way to keep the ideal of rational autonomy alive in a civilization dedicated to killing it.  And even this seems like a more and more desperate ploy. Our old allies the peasants are gradually disappearing into the new global “middle class” which, like the industrial proletariat of the advanced capitalist countries before it, seeks not revolution but rather reform (read increasing disposable income), or else descending into the global underclass of migrant workers, refugees, and slum dwellers who lack the social capital to organize effectively.  Meanwhile the technocracy is gradually hounding the humanistic intelligentsia out of existence.  Too many humanistic scholars and practitioners now inhabit “adjunct hell,”  keeping liberal education alive by working for wages well below the (admittedly rather high) replacement cost of their labor, or “barista hell,” still looking for a way to break into what –from a barista’s vantage point– looks like a rather higher circle in global Capital’s burgeoning Inferno.  The revolution’s head has lost its heart and does not know where to find it.

Ideologies, Marx would remind us, die for a reason: the social classes the aspirations of which they articulated die out, left behind or actually crushed by changing social conditions. Ideologies, Hegel would remind us, die for a reason: they embody only a partial truth and in living this truth they are exposed as lies.  Humanistic secularism is dead for the simple reason that its central claim is incorrect. Phenomenal reality, material reality, whatever we want to call the world we experience with our senses, while it participates in the divine, is not itself God. Or rather it is God only in and through its not-being-God, through the limits it imposes and the dependence on others it requires of us, which point us beyond ourselves to the authentic ideal of Being as Such (or, in the apophatic language of the Buddhists, the ideal of dependent origination, the truth that we live in each other’s embrace).  This does not mean that humanistic secularism generally and communism in particular embodied no truth. On the contrary, the human civilizational project and especially the struggle for justice are real participations in the life of God, real ways towards enlightenment.  But they do not make us masters of our own destiny. And there is no political subject, be it the rationally autonomous individual or the democratic state or the communist party or people which can do this. On the contrary, we should have known all along that any organization powerful enough and compact enough to become a real collective political subject (itself a tall order) would negate the rational autonomy of its members and render itself an instrument of oppression rather than of liberation.  Rather, civilization building and the struggle for justice stretch us beyond ourselves, teaching us the deep truth that there is no Self –not even a We—which can become the master of its own destiny. Being is neither Substance nor Subject, but rather Relation, pure generativity and finds itself only in the gift, given or received, which reminds us of our dependence on each other as well as our creativity.

But this does not mean that we should simply leave our old humanistic ideals behind in favor of traditional spiritual paths. Those paths themselves are flawed because they too represent only a limited perspective on the truth –and in particular because they have neglected the aspiration of a spiritually maturing humanity for rational autonomy and because they have too often denied the deep truth of matter’s participation in the divine (something which expresses itself in, among other things, misogyny and repressive sexual morality). Those of us who have followed the way of humanistic secularism, either exclusively or in syncretism with traditional spiritual paths, have a special calling in the present period. We must safeguard the ideals of rational autonomy of which we have been the principal carriers in the Saeculum. We must re-affirm the sanctity of matter even as we acknowledge its limits. And we must re-situate these truths in the context of higher spiritual paths which stretch us not only towards full humanity but beyond it, towards the divine.  Then, and only then, will we emerge from the various circles of Capital’s Inferno and rise, “once again to see the stars.”


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Where Does Univocal Metaphysics Come From?

At the very core of the political theological position I have staked out is the judgment that a univocal metaphysics represents a fundamental and very dangerous error –the error which, I have argued, is at the root of both fundamentalism and of most, if not all, secularisms. It is the error, in other words, at the root of the current crisis of human civilization and one which we must correct.

By a univocal metaphysics I mean one which says that everything that exists exists in the same way we do. It is simply that some things are more powerful than others.  God is a being like we are. It is just that He is infinite. Or else God doesn’t exist at all (though he might be built).

In order to correct an error we must first discover its source. In past analyses I have argued that the emergence of a univocal metaphysics in Christendom from the twelfth century on was a response to the formation of sovereign state structures resulting from the Norman Conquest and the Crusades (of which the Norman Conquest, in taking Sicily from the Fatimids, ultimately made itself a part). The experience of life under a sovereign king created the basis in experience for the idea of divine sovereignty which then drove the formation of a univocal metaphysics from Anselm through Duns Scotus and William of Occam, up to the reformers and the philosophers of the Enlightenment.

I have also noted parallel developments in Dar-al-Islam with the formation of quasi-sovereign status especially after the Turkic invasions, something which established Asharism, with its strong doctrine of divine sovereignty and its resultant univocal metaphysics, as the dominant form of Islamic kalam.

Recently, however, I have wanted to dig more deeply, impelled by a troubling claim made by John Milbank in an unpublished article some years ago that Judaism and Islam, because of their focus on the fulfillment of the Law, are incapable of a metaphysics of participation, and essentially stuck in univocity. This seems to me to be wrong (can’t fulfillment of the Law itself be a participation in the divine, through the medium of connaturality, as Thomistic Christology and mystical theology alike suggest). But the fact remains that much of postmedieval Islam and a significant part of postmedieval Judaism (generally nonmystical trends) do tend towards a univocal metaphysics  –or else try to avoid metaphysics altogether. And of course one of Milbank’s great contributions has been to show that the deconstructionist critique of metaphysics actually applies only to a univocal metaphysics, a metaphysics which much deconstructionism itself covertly affirms.

Thus my alternative to Milbank’s thesis, an alternative which seeks to conserve his insight while avoiding what seems to me to be a profound misunderstanding and devaluing of Judaism and Islam:

As I have argued elsewhere (following Sartre), humanity is fundamentally the desire to be God: to be infinite and necessary, rather than finite and lacking the power of Being in ourselves. We have pursued this goal in many different ways and, when we have decided it is impossible, have struggled to come to terms with and find meaning in the light of that conclusion in many more ways.  One of the fundamental ways in which humanity has encountered the sacred has been in the just act. This is the Way of Israel, and expressed in diverse ways in Judaism and Islam and, in syncretism with various Hellenic ways focused on the search for meaning, in Christianity. This way is, in its pure form, ethical, legal, and even revolutionary. It is not metaphysical. It finds its origins in the struggle of Israel against the warlord of late Bronze Age Canaan and their Egyptian overlords. When Israel was defeated rabbinic Judaism emerged as a way of remaining faithful to revolutionary ideals in the context of a world in which revolution now seemed impossible. Thus the Talmudic discipline of deliberation regarding what is and what can be just in a petty commodity society under the rule of global empires. Christianity emerged out of a failed Jewish messianism, and thus also takes revolutionary failure as it s point of departure, but focuses on the supernaturally just act, symbolized by the crucifixion of the failed messiah, Jesus of Nazareth, as a way of attaining connaturality with God and thus solving a problem –how to cross the threshold from contingent to necessary Being—which was not Jewish but rather Greek in origin. Islam, on the other hand, rejects defeat and asks how justice can be joined to power and the will of God actually realized on earth in a just society.

It is in this context that the error, itself quite natural, takes place which leads to a univocal metaphysics. When we encounter God on the battle field of the revolution, as the Undeconctructible demand for justice (Derrida’s term), there is a temptation, rather than seeing Justice as the ground of our experience of the divine (the authentically Jewish way and a constitutive dimension of any healthy Christianity or Islam) to instead use the idea of God as a way to ground the demand for justice. When this is contested we respond with a metaphysics (which is the only way to establish the “existence” of God once it has been contested). And since the God in question has been experienced as the “commander of right and forbidder of wrong,” the result pulls strongly –one might say almost irresistibly– in the direction of a univocal metaphysics.

Most Judaism and much Islam have been saved from this by a strict separation among the sacred sciences between legal scholarship (Talmud or fiqh), philosophy or kalam, and mystical disciplines such as Kaballah, Sufism, or the batin doctrines of the Ismailis and other Shia traditions. But to the extent that there is an effective political authority actually “commanding right and forbidding wrong,” and this authority is grounded metaphysically, the result will be a univocal metaphysics like the one that developed among the Asharites and which is now the norm in most non-Sufi Sunni Islam.

Christianity presents a different problem. We drank deeply at the sacred well of metaphysics in the early, formative stages of our development as a distinct way. While the content of our story is Jewish its form is Hellenic. We are a mystery cult. And mystery cults are the popular religious basis and ritual manifestation of the Hellenic variant of the Indo-European way, which has been focused on the search for meaning. Through participation in the mysteries or by means of the journey of the dialectic we approach as closely as possible to knowledge of and connaturality with the Unmoved Mover, the One, Being as Such. What the story of Jesus does is to show how full (if still accidental and not entitative) connaturality , the possibility of which was always rejected by classical Hellenism and the very idea of which was regarded as bordering on idolatry by Judaism and Islam alike—might actually be achieved.  Specifically, philosophy tells us that there is a first principle (Being) in terms of which the universe can be explained and human action ordered. It cannot tell us what this first principle is, in the sense of giving us knowledge of its essence, for the simple reason that Being is beyond definition.  We gain this knowledge through the just act and specifically when we are stretched beyond the justice required by reason and natural law and into a Justice which has no name and no definition, the Justice to which Jesus called us when he told us to take up the Cross (to become revolutionaries, literally or figuratively).

But of course this demand, precisely because it stretches us beyond our nature, is technically impossible, or at least impossible without grace. Therefore “all have sinned, all have fallen short of the glory of God.”

The critical question then becomes whether this falling short is mortally sinful or merely developmental. Catholicism, with its doctrine of purgatory, tends towards the latter view, but never embraced it completely, something which requires something like a doctrine of rebirth and reincarnation (perhaps infinite rebirth or infinite reincarnation). But it is also possible to read this falling short in a way which leads to a doctrine of irremediable, even radical depravity. This is the road taken by Anselm, Duns Scotus, and eventually by the Reformers.  Jesus’ merit, whether we opt for sola fides or fides caritas formata, substitutes for our own lack. There is no real connaturality with God. But there is forgiveness for our failure to achieve this connaturality, a failure built into our finite and contingent nature.

This still doesn’t force a univocal metaphysics –as long as we stay away from metaphysics altogether. But Christianity, as it happens, needs a metaphysics.  Especially if we are saved by Jesus’ merit rather than by an asymptotic approach, over many lifetimes, towards connaturality with God through the supernaturally just (revolutionary) act, Christianity needs the Incarnate Word, true God and true Human, one in Being with the Father, whose death alone can substitute for our lack.  And it therefore needs the Trinity. And this is impossible to think without metaphysics.

But what kind of metaphysics do we get if we begin with a God who makes impossible demands on his creatures, damns them for failing to meet them, and then saves (some or all of) them by having his own Son crucified in our place? Certainly not a metaphysics of participation. Indeed, we get a univocal metaphysics centered on a doctrine of divine sovereignty and divine glory more radical than anything the Asharites ever even attempted.  Unfortunately we also get one which makes it very difficult to think either the Trinity or the Incarnate Word.  Thus the persistent tendency for Protestantism (and the more Augustinian strains of Catholicism) to slip back towards the Arianism of their roots.

Were not the right man on our side, the man of God’s own choosing …

 And of course this is not really sufficient to satisfy the human shortfall.

The only way to think the Incarnate Word is on the basis of an analogical metaphysics of participation in which it becomes at once a symbol of human participation in the divine through the supernaturally just act and the limit case of our asymptotic approach to that point. The only way to think the Trinity is as the Esse as such, a shared Being in which we all participate and in which we are called to participate more fully by taking on the divine nature, through the supernaturally just act. But from this point of view we don’t really need the crucifixion as expiatory sacrifice. It is just a mark of a justice which radically transcends the ordinary demands of natural law, which is revolutionary in the deepest and most profound sense of carrying us beyond our existing form or structure or essence to something new –and towards the divine.

This argument by itself does not defeat a univocal metaphysics –or the Asharite or Protestant doctrines it helps theorize. But it does suggest that a univocal metaphysics is the product of trying think through metaphysically a certain type of theology, a theology of divine sovereignty. This theology needs a metaphysics and always and only yields a univocal metaphysics. But this univocal metaphysics doesn’t actually meet its needs, at least in the case of Christianity. Sunni Islam might be able to manage provided it restricts the role of metaphysics to proving the reasonableness of belief (the original function of kalam ), and provided it supplements legal disciplines with mystical practice, which provides much of what an analogical metaphysics does, but at a higher, lived level. But if Protestantism and the more Augustinian strands of Catholicism want to survive, they will need to reconcile themselves with an analogical metaphysics of Esse. There are, to be sure, longstanding efforts to do precisely this. The Mercersberg Theology of the nineteenth century, which sought to retheorizes Protestantism in a way which began with the Incarnation was one. So is the contemporary Finnish School of Lutheran theology, which has tried to develop an authentic doctrine of deification rooted in Luther’s own works. And of course Radical Orthodoxy, much as it sees itself as Catholic, is also Augustinian and began, at least in the Anglican rather than the Roman communion.

I look forward to dialogue with the proponents of these efforts while I chart the very different path of developing and transforming the Catholic way in dialogue with traditions which provide a more coherent way to think our asymptotic and never complete approach to the divine, and which balance our understanding of God as Esse with a recognition of Esse as neither substance nor subject, but rather relationship and generativity.

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The Meaning of the Shutdown: Globalization, Populism, and their Discontents

What, precisely, is the broader significance of the US government shutdown? Is this just an unfortunate side effect of contingent political developments (Republican gerrymandering) which have temporarily magnified the power of a ultimately marginal elements in the society (a racist backlash against the Obama Presidency), something the system will ultimately correct, allowing us to get on with life as usual? Or does it reflect a deeper structural, civilizational, or even spiritual disorder –a new stage in our slow motion, protracted spiral into civilizational crisis?

Clearly some elements of the crisis –its specific contours, for example—are contingent and conjunctural. In a system which already systematically over-represents rural areas, the South, and the West, the 2010 redistricting took place at a time when Republicans controlled a number of critical state legislatures and thus redrew district lines to the disadvantage of the Democrats. And the Republican Party nationally has, to an extent which has caught its leaders by surprise, become the captive of the opportunistic political strategy it has pursued since 1968: appealing to racism and the sense of being “left behind” to combat what it portrays, improbably, as “elitist” progressive economic, social, and cultural policy.

But the real question is why this strategy has proven so effective and so resilient? Why is there such a powerful constituency for what has become, in effect, an anticivilizational politics? In order to answer this question, we must look deeper, at the structural, civilizational, and spiritual levels.

Let it be said, to begin with, the Tea Party is itself a complex and heterogeneous political formation. It brings together, at the ideological level, religious social conservatives, libertarians, and identarian (racialist) populists as well as many who embrace two or more of these ultimately incompatible ideologies.  Socially, it has been funded by the most rapacious sectors of Capital, especially in the extractive sector (e.g. the Koch Brothers). It has drawn its support from a wide array of strata from displaced industrial workers to nouveau riche elements, especially those in the “high earning but not rich yet” or HENRY category. The interests of the most rapacious sectors of Capital are clear: i.e. to obstruct any and all regulation and/or reallocation of surplus which might undercut their privileged position. The supporters of the Tea Party, on the other hand, fall into three categories. There are those, who (mostly the HENRYs) who identify with the most rapacious sectors of Capital, believe that their success is due to their own efforts, and resent tax burdens which undercut their consumption aspirations, which are well out of line with any reasonable expectations.  Then there are those who feel left behind in the information and technology economy and see the Democrats as the party of the infotech gentry –and as redistributors of wealth from the Euro-American to African American and to a lesser extent Latino and immigrant working (they would say “under”)classes.  Finally, there is a small but politically active and vocal group (actually the ideological core of this heterogeneous Right) which is often university educated and in any case quite sophisticated but which has chosen to withdraw to one degree or another (though less than they imagine) from the “grid” which they associate, for reasons which bear further analysis, with the State much more so than with Capital and the global market.  This latter group overlaps in some degree with the other two and serves as the de facto cadre of the movement.

Behind the formation of this constituency lies the structural crisis of global capitalism and the gradual erosion of the privileged position of the United States, along with other “advanced” economies with in the global market. Globalization and the information economy are, quite simply, not working for large and growing numbers of people. The rise of highly educated skilled working classes in India, China, and other emerging markets has eroded the monopoly rents on skill and innovation on which Western prosperity has been partly based, while the redeployment of more and more manufacturing to low wage regions has presented workers in the West with the impossible demand that they all become university-educated professionals. And then when they do, they still find their disposable incomes eroding, because more university educated professionals means lower monopoly rents for those who achieve this status.  In other words, as the global “middle class” (misdefined as those who have significant disposable income) grows, the Western “middle class” declines. And even those who “succeed” in the new economy rarely do so at the levels they hoped for or expected. They never become independently wealth, able to live off of safe investments. But more on this later …

Accompanying this process is the final victory of the marketplace over all other institutions. This means the commodification of everything and the proletarianization of essentially everybody (even, as we have argued, highly privileged members of the new global elite, who must also serve Capital or starve).

Now not everyone who is affected by this crisis gravitates towards the Tea Party or other right-wing populist formations.  But the crisis, in spite of being a crisis of capitalism has not led to any renaissance of the revolutionary left. This is because, as the left learned to its chagrin in the 1920s and 1930s, class is not the only factor shaping political identity and political action. Class consciousness is mediated through ethnic and gender identities –and ultimately ordered to civilizational ideals. Many, in fact, for whom capitalism in its various stages of development has not worked, have opted for the left. But they have almost always done so through the medium of left wing populist linking ideologies which might loosely be grouped together as “anti-imperialisms” or “national liberation movements.” This is why the revolutionary left of the post WWII period understood itself as anti-American first (with America the symbol of global Capital at that stage in its development) more so than as socialist or communist, and why the people of postrevolutionary societies like Russia and China remain nationalistic and anti-American long after they have ceased to take socialism seriously.

And there are still many, even in the United States, perhaps a majority, who respond to the crisis in a way that is inflected to the left (if not so far as the Tea Party inflects to the right). But the left towards which their reaction is inflected is one allied (for good reason) with global Capital. Broadly speaking these fall into two groups: those who identify as members of ethnic minorities and those whose identities are cosmopolitan.  Those who are members of ethnic minorities find that even if globalization isn’t really working for them, that it creates more opportunities than the protectionist, isolationist, identarian alternative which threatens to roll back decades of incomplete but still significant progress towards “racial” justice.  And the dominant globalist forces maintain support for their agenda by opening up opportunities for these sectors and addressing some of the most serious threats to their survival and livelihood (health care and immigration reform, for example). Cosmopolitans, similarly, even if they find themselves falling short of or even excluded from the new global elite, share an identity with that elite formed through a broadly liberal university education. And what cosmopolitans do really wouldn’t even exist in a “reset” deglobalized economy. (That is also true for almost everyone else, but we will get to that later).

The people who tend to the right, towards the Tea Party, are those who carry a strong “white” identity. Like all ethnic identities this one is constructed –in this case negatively as “not Black, not recent immigrant, not a liberally educated cosmopolitan.”  University educated people who share this identity tend either to have had an education which was overwhelmingly technical in character, and not liberal, or one which was intentionally not globalizing and multicultural, i.e. one rooted in a conservative, usually religious interpretation of the “Western” tradition.  They feel like the globalists offer them very little. Even if they know, for example that they will benefit from the Affordable Care Act, they find themselves in a world in which their skills and values are less and less in demand. They are the Left Behind. And they tend to feel this way even if they are actually quite privileged.  They know that it is just a matter of time before someone in India or China finds a way to pirate what they invented or, even worse, actually come up with a better, cheaper way to do it. Their privilege, great though it may be at the moment, is very fragile. And of course many displaced Euro-American industrial workers have no such privileges at all any longer.

This is, as one commentator I cannot identify pointed out, why they are willing to take the risk of global economic crisis by shutting down much of the US government and risking default. They want to hit the “reset” button.

There is one identity which we have not yet mentioned in this discussion, but it is a very important one: gender. While there are clearly both men and women on both the left and the right, the gender gap is real and deep.  The reasons for this are quite simple. Women have always been more aware of the ways in which we are all dependent on each other.  And they are less likely to indulge fantasies of self-sufficiency in a post-apocalyptic world. So while there are certainly men who know that as much as the world seems to be working against them, in the absence of a viable civilizational alternative, total collapse would be a VERY BAD thing, and a few women who imagine themselves as “earth mothers” raising food and children while their husbands hunt and defend the homestead, women, generally speaking, live closer to the truth.

The Tea Party is playing a dangerous game. And it is all the more dangerous because there are some small elements of truth in their perspective.  Globalism isn’t working.  Socialism, at least as historically understood and practiced, is no longer an attractive alternative. We are all tired of being treated like batteries which is, ultimately, how Global Capital engages us and how Big Government makes us feel. We want to be human again.

But setting in motion another and deeper global economic crisis will accomplish nothing. No matter how bad, it is unlikely to actually provide the “reset” the Tea Party radicals are looking for.  And we really don’t have any alternatives, Right or Left.  It is not only the technogentry or cosmopolitan cultural workers whose very professions exist only in the context of the interdependent global system currently regulated by Capital and the market. Almost no one any longer does anything which is really possible “off the grid.” And we certainly do not have an alternative global leadership capable of leading a postrevolutionary society.  If too serious a crisis threatens, the result will be a “save” on the part of what remains of the globalist elites which seriously damages what democratic public life and personal autonomy remain. Fascism also began as an attempt at a populist “reset.” It ended as something very different and far, far worse.

In all likelihood the immediate crisis will pass, hopefully with a decisive defeat for the Tea Party and those Republicans who conciliated them.  But the underlying forces which created this situation will persist. And people across all social strata and across the entire political-theological spectrum are likely to get more desperate and to act more and more rashly. We need to prepare for this.

What does this mean?

Partly it means that we need to be on guard. While historic fascism was, in many ways, a contingent product of very specific historical circumstances, “fascistoid” phenomena are, for the reasons we explained above, integral to capitalism and secularism in their phase of decline, and are thus a permanent danger.

But it also means doing the hard work of charting the next steps in the human spiritual and civilizational project. We must craft a new spiritual and civilizational ideal and cultivate leaders who can build institutions which can realize that ideal.  And we need to help the people overcome the childish conviction that we can be independent. That doesn’t mean we have to consent to being reduced to mere batteries, to proletarianization at the hands of the market or the state. On the contrary, we should resist proletarianization with every fiber of our being. (It is Being Itself, in which we share, which resists!) But the human condition is one of finitude and contingency. It is a condition we transcend only when we recognize that we are not this Self or this Ego, individual or collective, but a participation in something far greater and deeper, that we share in Being and live in each other’s embrace.  Only when we realize this and stop demanding that the Saeculum deliver what only a long and difficult spiritual journey can even begin to offer will we find a way forward, beyond the Saeculum, towards a future in which we can (once again?), (at long last?), be human.

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Fundamentalism is a Secularism


There are few polemical tactics more annoying than that of trying to demonstrate that one’s adversary in fact upholds the position which s/he most abhors. I would therefore like to begin this essay with a disclaimer. My aim in advancing the thesis indicated in the title is not polemical. It represents, rather, a serious theological and philosophical judgment expressed out of concern for what I believe to be a grave error which so many, with the sincere aim of advancing and defending what they understand to be true religion, are making.

Let me begin with some definitions. By fundamentalism I refer first and foremost to Christian fundamentalism in the narrower sense of dispensational premillenialism. This is the claim that we are currently living in the “church age” or “age of grace” during which the obviously social-revolutionary teachings of Jesus are in abeyance, and justification is by faith alone, until Jesus returns and ushers in the millennium.  But this Christian fundamentalism in the narrower sense is based, as George Marsden demonstrated in his 1980 study, Fundamentalism in American Culture, on an empiricist theory of knowledge which regards all  knowledge as the product of sensation –and which insists, therefore that the events recounted in the sacred scriptures are literally true. The alternative, from the vantage point of such an epistemology, is that they never happened at all in any sense and that the scriptures are without value.  Dispensational premillenialism is based on a hermeneutic, or approach to interpretation, which says that the Bible is a book of facts and then asks what would have to be true for the apparently contradictory claims it contains to all be literally true.  What I have to say, therefore, also applies in large measure to other fundamentalisms in other religious traditions, Christian and non-Christian, which insist on the literal inerrancy of their scriptures.

By secularism I mean the claim that the sacred is found and realized in and only in “this” world, i.e. that enlightenment or salvation, or whatever our spiritual aim, unfolds and finds its realization in cosmohistory.  In my previous writings I have identified two principal forms of what I call the secular ideal. Technicist secularism seeks divinization by using scientific and technological progress to push back the boundaries of finitude to the point that humanity becomes, in effect, divine.  Humanistic secularism seeks to create a collective political subject –the people, the democratic state, or the communist party—which makes humanity the master of its own destiny, “the unique subject-object” of the cosmohistorical evolutionary process, to adapt Lukacs’ phrase, and thus to transcend the limits of contingency and become (as though that were possible) Being as such. Perhaps my fundamentalist sisters and brothers can take some comfort in the fact that I largely accept their claim that these secularisms not only represent grave spiritual errors but also that they are, for all intents and purposes both spiritualities (ways of seeking Being) and religions (institutionalized patterns of action by means of which spiritual ends are pursued).

My argument turns on an extension of Marsden’s insight from the epistemological to the metaphysical arena. Fundamentalism, I would like to argue, not only insists that knowledge consists exclusively of “facts” accessible to the senses, but also that reality has, as it were, only one plane or dimension. To use technical metaphysical language, fundamentalism is the logical consequence of a univocal metaphysics, a metaphysics which says (following Anselm, Scotus, Occam, and the Reformers, as well as most empiricist and rationalist philosophers, atheistic or theistic) that everything exists in the same way we do. If God exists, the divine distinctive is simply Its infinity.

Following John Milbank (who in turn follows Gillian Rose in this insight) I have argued elsewhere that it is the turn from an analogical to a univocal metaphysics which ushers in “modernity.” It is what is behind the Asharite, Franciscan, and Protestant reduction of spirituality to a zero sum game in which human development comes at the cost of divine sovereignty and thus constitutes radical sin, making the Reformed doctrine of radical depravity inescapable. It is what is behind the technicist secularism which imagines that the infinite extension of human power would, in effect, build God.

I have been fascinated for some time by the fact that the reaction of my beginning students when presented with alternatives to a literal interpretation of the scriptures has been nearly uniform, with little difference between those who are fundamentalists and those who are scientifically formed nonbelievers. They uniformly take such a reading (whether they accept it or not) to imply that the scriptures “aren’t true” and don’t matter.  I have also found that both fundamentalists and scientifically formed nonbelievers react with profound skepticism to most philosophical arguments for the sacred and to most forms of contemplative practice.  At one level this is a reflection of the empiricist epistemology which they share. Only facts are true. Facts are what can be proven by observation or experiment. It is just that some accept the scriptures as reliable witness to such “facts” and others do not.  But at a deeper level it reflects a flat, univocal metaphysics. Neither side has access to the realm of “necessary Being” on which the sacred is actually located and in which, I would argue, we (and the entire secular world) participate, but into which we never fully enter.  The “space” in which the sacred is located simply doesn’t exist for them.  All meaningful events must be played out in the phenomenal world of “facts,” whether as miracles and apocalyptic wars or triumphs of technological progress –or not at all.

To demonstrate rigorously that such a worldview is mistaken would take far more space than we have here.  Let me note, simply, that the most rigorous attempts to describe “this world” –those of mathematical physics—have ended up positing “other worlds” to which we have no empirical access as the condition of possibility of the world that we experience. This alone suggests a reduction ad absurdum of all forms of secularism and the need to acknowledge that what we experience is just a participation in something far greater and far more profound. Whether or not that “something far greater” is best characterized as an 11 or 26 dimensional manifold is another question entirely.

I began by claiming that fundamentalism is a secularism. But in the process I have come very close to demonstrating that Protestantism itself is a secularism. After all, Protestantism in general shares the univocal metaphysics on which fundamentalism (like humanism and technicist) are based. The same is true of much nonfundamentalist conservative Islam.  But I hesitate to draw this conclusion.  Instead I will merely suggest that secularism is a danger for these doctrines, even when they are not fundamentalist. This is why modernizing Protestant theologies when they reject literal interpretations of the Christian story have difficulty “locating” metaphysically the deeper truth they continue to uphold.  This is why so many have found the work of theologians such as Tillich ultimately unsatisfying (and more so that than of say Rahner, who shares many of the same sources and influences but whose still fundamentally Catholic theology does not pull so hard in the direction of a univocal metaphysics). It is also why there has been such a powerfully antimetaphysical turn in theology in the past few decades. If the only metaphysics one can imagine is univocal then it is indeed best to avoid metaphysics entirely.

Islam faces much the same difficulty, especially the Sunni tradition. The distinction between an Islam which is fundamentalist and one which is merely conservative is very difficult to make and when it is made it is almost always on political rather than theological grounds.  Only the much richer metaphysical resources of the Shia traditions allow a real solution to this problem.

The struggle for a postsecular society is the struggle against a univocal metaphysics. It is the struggle to recover access to the “higher” and “deeper” reality in which the sacred is actually located, not in order to abandon the phenomenal world and its struggles, but so that we can understand them properly as participation and as sacrament and invest them with the full meaning they deserve –without the “excess” beyond this that has made the past 500 years such a time of terror.  Subsequent essays in this series will explore how to do this, drawing on multiple traditions, as well as the dangers facing us along the way.

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How Capital Persists – And How it Will Be Defeated

Reading competing analyses of the current situation one might initially imagine that we are all living in different worlds. Where some see a global convergence around the secular ideal of scientific-technological progress and economic growth and development others see a clash between civilizational ideals among which there can be no compromise. Where some see global proletarianization and the emergence of a revolutionary “multitude” others see the rise of a global middle class. I have devoted a great deal of attention in pervious analyses to the first debate –that between the “end of history” and the “clash of civilizations” theses, arguing that neither is adequate and that we are, in fact entering a period of civilizational crisis in which the old secular ideal (in both its technicist and humanistic forms) has been called radically into question but nothing has yet emerged to replace it.  I will return to this question towards the end of this essay, but I would like to begin with what is happening at the structural level (of how our society is organized to realize the civilizational ideal to which it is ordered, which remains, objectively, technicist secularism). More specifically I would like to look at the question of the current configuration of class forces and of the situation of social classes as civilizational actors. As we will see this has profound implications for the possibility of defining a new, postsecular civilizational ideal and a postcapitalist social order.

Fundamental to the original formulation of historical materialism, as opposed to the various utopian socialisms which Marx and Engels criticized in their Communist Manifesto was the idea that the process of capitalist development would eventually obliterate the peasantry and the petty bourgeoisie, stripping them of even modest control over the labor process and means of production and thus create a mass base for socialism. Once one was reduced to abstract labor how, after all, could one fail to adopt its point of view? And what could that point of view be except that of socialism, of the collective, rational allocation of the social surplus product in such a way as to best promote human development and civilizational progress?  Closely associated with this is the idea that under capitalism there is a ruling class –Capital or the “bourgeoisie” (in my mind never a particular useful term, since it refers to where one lives rather than to one’s position in the relations of production).  This class consists of those who own and live off their ownership of the means of production, i.e. on profits of enterprise, capital gains, interest, rents, etc. , rather that wages or the immediate, precommodified direct products of their labor. This class is understood to in one way or another control the state apparatus, whether directly or in virtue of the way that apparatus is structured. Socialism, whatever else it involves, presupposes displacing Capital as the ruling class a creating a “worker’s state” in which the proletariat (perhaps with allied petty bourgeois and peasant elements) rules.

A great deal of later historical materialism is devoted to trying to understand why most historic socialist revolutions were primarily peasant revolts and why industrial workers, the supposed core of the proletariat, have not generally been especially interested in revolutionary socialism, preferring social democracy or “the welfare state,” and sometimes even supporting fascist movements. We will not rehearse these theories here. I have already done so in other contexts (Mansueto 1995, 2002a, 2010). They pertain, in any case, to configurations of social forces which are passing away and in some cases long gone.  And the verdict of this long self-criticism of dialectics in practice is clear. Historic socialism was, on the side of the peasants, artisans, newly proletarianized industrial workers and humanistic intellectuals who supported it first and foremost a movement of resistance to proletarianization capitalist development.  From the vantage point of the technocratic intellectuals and state capitalist forces which ended up dominant in most actually existing socialist regimes it was a mechanism for accelerated industrialization. Fully proletarianized workers have rarely supported revolutionary socialist movements and the technocratic (as opposed to the humanistic) fraction of the “new class” to which advanced industrial and information economies (capitalist or socialist) give birth eventually abandons it.

Less attention has been devoted to the problems with the historical materialist idea of the ruling class. This is, in large part, because until relatively recently the idea had rather more merit. And where ever one stands in the debate between instrumental and structural theories of the capitalist state, it is still possible to demonstrate that major political parties in advanced capitalist countries are largely funded, and therefore significantly influenced, if not actually controlled, by competing fractions of Capital and  that the structure of the capitalist state, based as it is on legal concepts of “right” which derive from the idea of property, inevitably reproduces capitalist relations of production.

In this essay I would like look at the emerging configuration of class forces globally and ask what this configuration of forces implies for the possibility of civilizational and structural transformation.  Specifically, I will argue that the rise of what Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri call “the multitude” is by no means incompatible with what the National Intelligence Council sees as the rise of a global middle class, and that both are part of a larger process which includes the decline of the traditional liberal bourgeoisie and its displacement by a “new global elite” which is itself at once highly privileged and significantly proletarianized.  Our adversaries and our protagonists are less and less well defined groups of people or even broad social categories and more and more impersonal –and contradictory–  structural and cultural dynamics.  This has profound implications for the creation of a postsecular, postcapitalist politics.


I have discussed the phenomenon of the new global elite in earlier essay. Fundamentally, this group is defined by its reliance on monopoly rents on skill and innovation, rather than ownership of capital for its income. In this sense, it is best regarded as “petty bourgeois” and as the highest stratum of what historical materialist theory in the late twentieth century called the “new petty bourgeoisie” or the “professional middle class.” This stratum is convinced of its superior intellect and work ethic, and inclined to believe that a combination of good intentions and technical expertise can solve any problem which is actually susceptible of solution (what is often called “solutionism”). It is also inclined to believe that those below them on the social ladder are there first and foremost because they are less capable. While this group vacillates wildly in its political behavior, between a technocratic moderate neoliberalism focused on state-led investment in education and technological development and a libertarian rejection of social responsibility and state intervention of any kind, its organic politics is that of philanthropocapitalism and social entrepreneurship and its native spirituality somewhere on the spectrum between New Age subjective idealism (the world is what you make it) and feel good New Evangelicalism (I’ rich because God loves me more).

What has received less attention is the gradual, though far from complete, degradation of the liberal bourgeoisie into this stratum. Marx already knew that capitalist development would proletarianize more than a few capitalists. What he did not realize was that its tendency (asymptotic, perhaps, but real nonetheless) is to proletarianize all of them. A fully globalized information economy means that one’s capital is essentially never secure and the ownership of capital confers less and less security and autonomy with each passing year. And how does one buttress that security? By becoming a world class innovator who can generate and capture new surplus as the old sources dry up. This means, in effect, becoming a member of the new global elite, a very high level “expert,” even if that expertise is in the area of portfolio management or serial entrepreneurship.  And of course investors and entrepreneurs alike know that they are not really autonomous. They are, ultimately slaves of the global market: house slaves or even palace slaves, but slaves nonetheless.

In mature capitalism, it is Capital, not capitalists, that rule.

This transition within the traditional liberal bourgeoisie is marked by the fact that many of its most social responsible elements, led by investor Warren Buffet, have pledged to give away at least half their wealth. By any ordinary measure their heirs will still, of course, be tremendously privileged. But the ambition of earlier generations of capitalists, to create a family dynasty which was free of market pressure and able to devote itself to public service and civilization building (or to decadence and conspicuous consumption) is gradually disappearing.

This is, in turn reflected in what might be mistaken for an “inability of the ruling class to rule,” –one of Lenin’s conditions for a revolutionary situation. It seems impossible for any of the various fractions of Capital to form a stable governing coalition and address the global civilizational problems which even they recognize (climate change, demographic inversion, economic stagnation). But what is really happening is that while various economic sectors do indeed fund and thus exercise considerable control over the principal political parties, these sectors themselves have constantly changing interests and are unable to adopt what Gramsci called a “global” as opposed to a “partial” perspective on politics. In contemporary parlance, they lack a vision for the future and have been reduced to interest group politics, leaving political parties increasingly vulnerable to domination by irresponsible, acivilizational or anticivilizational forces such as the Tea Party.

At the cultural level, this dynamic is reflected in the declining support for the historic cultural institutions of the liberal bourgeoisie: the liberal Protestantism and the liberal arts university. Liberal Protestantism (which, we must remember, directly or indirectly founded and sponsored many of the great private universities in the United States) was all about seeing the hand of God in capitalist civilizational progress, even if that required philanthropic initiative or state intervention.  The liberal arts university was about cultivating leaders who could see beyond money making and take responsibility for civilization (without, of course, undermining the structures which generated the surplus which made their leadership possible). This ideal is now globally under attack, especially at institutions serving the working classes, an issue we will take up in another article. But the attacks have not spared elite institutions. When an institution like Northwestern University is requiring that all of its students justify both curricular and extracurricular choices based on their impact on their readiness for the workforce we know that not only the liberal ideal (Protestant or humanistic) has been abandoned but that the ruling class itself (in the sense of those with the resources to retire from moneymaking and focus on civilization building) has contracted to the point that it can no longer drive the mission of more than a handful of institutions.  Even the children of Capital are being required to acquire marketable skills.


Let us now turn to what is happening with everyone else: the so called 99%. The first point which I would like to make is that the contradiction between proletarianization and the rise of the global middle class is only apparent. Proletarianization refers to the process by which producers (including producers of services, even intellectual services) are stripped of control of the means of production and forced to work for others. One can be proletarianized and still earn a living wage or even a massive monopoly rent on skill or innovation. The discourse around the rise of the global middle class, on the other hand, refers simply to the fact that a growing percentage of the world’s population has disposable income. While it is true that the criteria used to define disposable income are sometimes so liberal as to be ridiculous (e.g. more than $2 a day), there are more and more people for whom 1/3 of more of their income is not absorbed by basic necessities and are thus entering the consumer economy.

The second point which I would like to make is that these twin developments are not especially propitious for a postsecular, postcapitalist politics. Historic socialism adopted one of two principal economic   strategies. The first, associated with Lenin’s New Economic Policy and the early stages of the Chinese revolution focused on carrying out radical land reform to secure the well-being and support of the peasantry and create a demand for manufactured goods. This strategy foundered because peasants, left to their own devices, tend not to produce more than they need to feed themselves, slowing economic growth and sometimes creating food shortages in the cities. It was thus nearly always eventually displaced by one or another form of “primitive socialist accumulation” which extracted surplus from the peasants in order to industrialize rapidly. The Soviet Union had to do this in order to effectively resist the threat of fascism. China did it in order to be able to rebuild itself as a civilizational center and geopolitical power. The expectation was that, on the one hand, the resulting economic growth would eventually eliminate scarcity and that the people, freed from market relationships, would focus on realizing higher spiritual and civilizational aspirations rather than demanding increased access to consumer goods. Both expectations proved false. The Soviet Union fell in large part because it refused to yield to the demand for consumer goods. The Chinese yielded and are now facing both a loss of their comparative advantage in providing low wage high productivity labor and what little remained of popular support for socialism in the wake of the party’s  repeated redefinitions of the ideal .

This is important to keep in mind when we try to evaluate the recent wave of popular resistance, from the Color Revolutions to the Arab Spring to the Occupy movements to recent wave of leftist protests against the leftist government of Brazil. Yes, these movements do reflect the aspirations of a largely proletarianized “multitude.”  And yes they do reflect real grievances and legitimate demands, whether for a living wage, decent public services, political participation, and government accountability. But no, they are not calling capitalism into question. This is because they cannot, precisely because their social base is so profoundly proletarianized that they cannot really imagine transcending the proletarian condition. The humanistic intellectual, petty bourgeois and peasant reservoir on which historic socialism drew whenever it imagined something more than a reformed capitalism (or a fast track to industrialization) has largely dried up and the social basis for a postsecular, postcapitalist politics with it.


Or has it?

What I would like to suggest is that while the social-structural bases for transcending technicist secularism and the capitalist structures through which it is current pursued have largely disintegrated, the underlying ontological and physical and anthropological bases for resistance remains, as it must, because neither the secular ideal nor the capitalist structure by means of which our civilization pursues it are tenable.  And new social-structural base will emerge.

The ontological base is this: nothing in the phenomenal world has the power of Being in itself; nothing we experience has inherent existence. All depend on an arche which we can think of either as yhwh or Esse, , i.e. the power of Being as such or as pattica samupada , the Jewel Net of Indra, in which all things live in each other’s embrace.  While all creative worldly activity is a participation in this, the secularist  ideal of transcending finitude and contingency by means of innerworldly civilizational progress (by creating a collective political subject which makes humanity the master of its own destiny or by extending scientific and technological progress to the point that we become effectively omnipotent) inevitably runs up against frustration. Contingent cannot become necessary Being.

The physical base consists in the fact that the natural world is a participation in the arche. It is not, as secularism, capitalist or socialist presupposed, simply dead matter to be used as we see fit. And it will not tolerate such use. Thus the resistance of nature or physis to the technological onslaught of secular godbuilding projects. Thus the ecological crisis. And thus also our gradual recovery of a sense of reverence and even awe for the beauty and power of physis which, however well mathematical physics may describe it, remains fundamentally divine.

Humanity, as Sartre recognized, is the desire to be God.  It is also, however, when it is sane, a recognition that this desire is quite impossible. The boundary between contingent and necessary Being is impermeable and cannot be crossed. This is why ideologies of entitative divinization, from sacral monarchy through capitalist and socialist godbuilding ultimately make no sense. They wreak social havoc when they are pursued and are rejected by the people once they are fully and adequately understood (since what they mean for the people is their transformation into sacrificial victims or “batteries” for the rulers who are the only ones to experience even modest benefits from the doomed quest for divinization).

What human beings (as well as any hypothetical higher beings) can do that minerals, plants, and animals cannot is to participate consciously in Being/dependent origination.  We do this by participating in the creative and relational process which is nature and history. And at our best we do it in the recognition that nothing we find and nothing we create has inherent existence; all is participation, relationship, generativity. When we understand this fully, beyond concept and with direct experience, our conscious participation becomes enlightened. When we act on this enlightenment our laboring and organizing and creating becomes an authentic ripening of Being.

None of this has dried up. It is just that as our old structures and institutions have become ossified or corrupt or perverted (turned into ways of making us sacrificial victims or batteries for someone else’s project of godbuilding or divinization) we increasingly pursue these aims outside of or on the edges of institutions, because this is the only place we find space to do so. This is a normal, healthy response on the part of people who have no other way to conserve and cultivate their humanity, their nature, their being/related.  But it is not a very promising base for a politics.

So what is our task? And how do we pursue it? If we are to create a postsecular, postcapitalist politics we must find a way to tap into the Base as a source of power. This means repairing old institutions, where this is possible and it means creating new ones. The choice between these options is a false one. A year ago the possibility of a rebirth of authentic spirituality and an authentic witness for justice in the Catholic Church would have seemed impossibly remote. Today, with Francis, it is a reality. The institution is worth engaging and rebuilding. But there are limits. Francis has already shown a profound reluctance –or even an inability– to engage the deepest and most profound perversion of the Church –its misogyny. So there is still a need to build on the outside.

The same is true of other institutions …

But just how do we do this? Engaging and rebuilding institutions requires leadership. And leadership begins with virtue, with excellence, with mana. If we want to articulate a vision of a society ordered to the full development of human capacities then we must first, ourselves, be highly developed. If among those capacities we include spirituality, however we understand it, then we must ourselves live and embody the spiritual ideas we are forging –in fact forge them as we are testing and embodying them. Otherwise our claims on the people will ring hollow.

This does not mean that only the fully enlightened can lead. But the day (thank God!) when credentials, whether scholarly or sacerdotal or political by themselves confer mana are over.  We must really embody the meanings and values we articulate and struggle each and every day to embody them more fully.

Second, we must understand institutions as first and foremost structures for cultivating human beings.  What we need from people most is not their support but their self-cultivation. While it certainly matters what we believe and where we stand on the issues and while we certainly engage in deliberation and attempt to persuade others (even as we are open to being persuaded by them), what really matters is that we are identifying people who want to grow and develop and that we help them do so.  Build relationships. Cultivate human capacities. Above all deproletarianize both ourselves and those we lead. Do not liberate them from Capital only to make them dependent on us. Together articulate a new vision of what it means to be human. Old institutions will change and new ones will be born.  And when this happens resources will begin to flow along new pathways –away from those which give the highest rate of return and towards those which best promote the development of human capacities.  And a new authority and a new power will be born, the power of the elders and the people together.  And Capital will be defeated.


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What Bergoglio Means

The election of a Jorge Mario Cardinal Bergoglio as Bishop of Rome and Supreme Pontiff of the Roman Catholic Church has, inevitably, led to numerous requests for an assessment of what the election means for the future of the Church and for the Church’s broader impact on the human civilizational project. These were, initially, difficult questions to answer, for the simple reason that while the new pope was been quite clear from the beginning that he intends a break of some significance from the papacy of his predecessor, the evidence regarding just who he is and what he represents was limited and contradictory in character. Gradually, however, over the course of the past six months the new pontiff has given some fairly well defined, if not always fully transparent, indications of just where he stands and where he wants to take the Church. By setting this evidence in the larger context what the Catholic Church is and of its current situation we can read it more accurately and provide a framework for interpreting what is to come.

The Catholic Ideal

It must be understood that the papacy is, first and foremost, a civilizational office, not a spiritual one in the narrower sense of that term. The pope has little or no authority in the internal forum and election as pope is not a recognition of outstanding holiness. The pope is not a reincarnated tulku or the Sufi qutb or the Ismaili Imam of the time. His task, rather, is to advance the Catholic ideal –an ideal which is certainly spiritual as well as civilizational in character—in the external forum, by positioning the church strategically to carry out its threefold leadership task: teaching, sanctifying, and governing.  Francis himself recognized this in his statement to the Vatican diplomatic corps regarding the qualifications for the office of Bishop. “If he is holy, let him pray for us. If he is learned, let him teach us. If he is prudent let him govern us.”  Francis’ claim, and that of the papacy, is to the last of these three virtues.

The starting point of any strategic analysis must, therefore, be a clear definition of the Catholic ideal. This is a difficult task because catholicity by its very nature an attempt to encompass many related ideals within a single institution. It is also difficult because the ideal itself is a product of syncretism: first between Judaism and Hellenism and then between the resulting syncretism and the countless other cultures which Christianity has engaged as it has spread around the planet.

We have written extensively on the nature of the Catholic ideal elsewhere. Here it will suffice to summarize. First, from Hellenism Catholicism takes the conviction that we can rise rationally to a first principle in terms of which the universe can be explained and human action ordered. On this basis we seek to create a just society –a society which promotes the full development of human capacities—but also recognize that our human nature points us towards an end which transcends our natural capacities: knowing and loving God in essence, something of which human nature alone is incapable. Second, from Judaism, Catholicism takes the conviction that we encounter God first and foremost in the struggle for a just society. Because the Jewish heritage passed to us through the person of Jesus of Nazareth, a messianic pretender crucified by the Romans, we tend to believe that the struggle for justice, while it may yield authentic worldly progress, ends ultimately on the cross. But we do not take this as a sign of defeat. Rather, we see the struggle for justice as stretching us beyond the merely human toward connaturality with the divine –what Judaism calls da’ath elohim. It is in this connaturality  with the divine that we find our ultimate calling and our ultimate realization. In order to accommodate this possibility, which neither Hellenism nor Judaism fully envisioned, the Catholic Church teaches a participatory understanding of the divine nature –the doctrine of the Trinity—in which a single divine nature (Being as Such) is shared by many persons and the doctrine of the Incarnation which teaches that human beings can become –accidently though not essentially—divine.

The Catholic Civilizational Ideal is to create a social order in which human beings can realize their natural capacities as the condition and first step in achieving their final end, which transcends those natural capacities, and which we realize only in and through God.


Catholic Civilizational Strategy

This broad ideal leaves significant room for individual and culturally specific variations. And, like all civilizational ideals, it has been carried by human institutions with a definite social basis. The Catholic Church came to maturity in the context of an expanding civilization based on new agrarian and craft technologies (the three field system, tranhument pastoralism, expanded use of animal and water power) and organized by a complex mixture of feudal, guild, and petty commodity relationships. It was the organizing ideal of this civilization. Contradictions within this system which led to the emergence of generalized commodity production and first the absolutist and then the democratic state undercut the Church’s hegemony and made it a competitor with new civilizational ideals: the Protestant ideal of divine sovereignty, the technicist secular ideal of transcending finitude by means of scientific and technological progress, and the humanistic secular ideal of transcending contingency by creating a collective political subject which makes humanity the master of its own destiny.

The Church initially responded to these challenges by mimicking what looked at the time to be the most successful political strategy on the map: that of absolute monarchy. This strategy underwent a number of mutations: a baroque, neoscholastic variant which attempted to subject other monarchies to that of the Pope as guardian of natural law, Enlightenment and Traditionalist variants which, albeit in somewhat different ways abandoned the historic Catholic metaphysics of Esse and natural law ethics for a univocal metaphysics of power, and, with the First Vatican Council, a modified absolutism which claimed infallibility for the pope in matters of faith and morals while abandoning the ancien regime in favor of an alliance with the working class, peasantry, and petty bourgeoisie based on increasingly vigorous efforts to act on traditional teachings on social justice.  This strategy failed decisively at what was arguably the most critical point in the history of Christendom – the struggle with fascism, as tepid support for Christian Democratic parties alternated with accommodation to fascism. With the defeat of fascism the Church embraced Social Catholicism more enthusiastically and found itself a more important political force in Europe in 1960 than anyone in 1870 would have imagined possible, with Christian Democratic parties in power or serving as principal opposition throughout the continent, but with rapidly declining spiritual authority. The situation in North America was somewhat better as immigrants from historically anticlerical backgrounds embraced the Church as a guarantor of cultural identity as well as an advocate for social justice. But it was clear that the strategy wasn’t really working.

The Second Vatican Council was, from the vantage point of the institution, an attempt to regain effective spiritual leadership and to come to terms with why Social Catholicism had not protected Europe and the Church from fascism.  The council opened the Church to a range of new theologies, turned away from reliance on clerically sponsored parties towards a broad engagement with modern culture, situating the secularism in both its humanistic and scientific technological variants in the context of humanity’s broader, transhistorical participation in the life of God.  In some regions this strategy was quite successful. By the end of the 1960s the Church was moving towards broad identification with the Third World and the Non-Aligned  movement, if not precisely with the Kremlin, and was regarded by the peoples of Asia, African, and Latin America as an ally in their struggles for national liberation and social justice. The council’s failure to address the Church’s misogyny, however, and its broader expression in a repressive sexual morality, limited the Council’s effectiveness in Europe and North America.

The role of the Church as a leader in the national liberation movements, and, from the vantage point of global Capital as a de facto ally of the Soviet Union led key operatives of Global Capital to mobilize in order to break the liberationist trend.  Conservative elements in the hierarchy and their allies in the still very powerful European aristocracy, furthermore, argued that Europe’s problem was not too little, but too much sexual liberation, a view which gained force as Europe’s demographic crisis unfolded. While the conclave which convened after the death of Paul IV elected a strong progressive committed to continuing and extending the work of the Council (Papa Luciani, or John Paul I) he was quickly dispatched by the ascendant right and replaced with a charismatic, if not especially sophisticated operative of the Communio  trend, Karol Woytila, who moved to break the liberationists and leverage the moral authority of the church to support those working to bring down the Soviet Union.  His Prefect for the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, and ultimate successor, Joseph Ratzinger, carried this strategy further, working to reconfigure the Church as the vanguard of a revitalized Christian  Europe, supporting strong antifeminist, pronatalist policies and purging those who so much as tolerated alternative pastoral strategies.

The result of this strategy, coupled with a sexual abuse scandal which can only be interpreted as demonstrating  the integral character pedophile practices to Catholic clerical culture for at least a very extended period, has been to send the Church into rapid decline in most regions of the world. Europe, North America, Asia, and Latin America and Asia have all seen losses to Evangelicalism, Secularism (which Ratzinger’s strategy was designed to combat) and the New Age. Only Africa, where the Church competes for market share with Islamic fundamentalism, has been fertile ground for sexually repressive, antifeminist pronatalism.


Given these developments, neither the resignation of Joseph Ratzinger nor the election of Jorge Maria Bergolio should come as a great surprise. Ratzinger’s resignation was at once last ditch effort to control the selection of his successor and a de fact admission of the defeat of his strategy. The election of Bergoglio represents the desire of broad sectors, even of a very conservative hierarchy largely appointed by Wotyila and Ratzinger, to step back and reassess. As one analyst on the left wing of the liberationist trend put it, the conclave chose “the best and least conservative of a group of almost exclusively conservative Cardinals.”

The question at this point, however, is who they actually got and what his election means. It is important first of all, to take seriously the new pontiff’s identity. If the formative moments in Wotytila’s development were his decision NOT to be part of the resistance to the NAZI occupation of his homeland, and his later experience of the Church as a voice for openness and accountability in socialist Poland, and the formative moment in Ratzinger’s development his rage at the challenge presented by the student movement of 1968, then Bergoglio’s identity must be seen as defined by the fact that he is Latin American and specifically Italo-Argentine, a member of a religious order, a Jesuit, and a “pastoral” rather than a curial bishop.

The first element of this identity positions Bergoglio in an unusual way with respect to the Church’s internal debate between Ratzinger’s “European” strategy and the Latin American and Third Worldist strategy of the liberationists. On the one hand, he clearly sees the future of the Church as a future in Latin America and the Third World, and in solidarity with the poorest of the poor (albeit without understanding this in a specifically liberationist way). On the other hand, as an Italo-Argentine he is likely to find the European Right’s fear that traditional European civilization is being marginalized and overrun by immigration and demographic collapse as exaggerated at best. An Italo-Argentine most likely believes that there are plenty of Europeans. It is just that most of them are now also Americans and thus part of a new and higher synthesis.

Second, Bergoglio is a religious priest (specifically a clerk regular) and a Jesuit. He will share the natural suspicion of religious generally regarding the spiritual seriousness of the secular clergy and, as we will see below, has already shown signs of regarding commitment to consecrated life as in some sense “trumping” hierarchical authority.  As a Jesuit he is part of an order committed to ensuring the survival of the Church in the modern world both by helping elites, Catholic and other wise, reinterpret the modern project in a way which situates it within the larger Catholic ideal of participation in the life of God, something which it has pursued through its network of colleges and universities, and by building a base among the disposed which it not only organizes and catechizes but draws into the larger framework of both modern and Catholic culture. While many liberationists and a few Communio reactionaries have been drawn from the ranks of the Society of Jesus, the overall Jesuit vision, mission, and strategy is quite different from predominantly Augustinian and Franciscan ethos which has informed both the left and the right within the Church in recent years.

Third, Bergoglio was a pastoral rather than a curial bishop. Woytila was also a pastoral bishop, but incorrectly generalized his experience in Poland, where a strong stand against secularism and the Communist Party built popular support for the Church. Bergoglio brings experience in a more complex situation where both left leaning and right leaning approaches have produced “results” in the most basic sense of increased popular support, and both have also created tensions and problems.  As we will see, he places a premium on the pastoral prudence which allows bishops to lead in a complex and contradictory situation and rejects the idea that the church can be reduced to a vanguard for either the left or the right. His vanguard is the Society of Jesus, but he recognizes the value of there being others. And his job is not to lead the vanguard but to lead the whole Church.

This is what we know based on Bergoglio’s identy. What can we say based on what he has done?

His first and most obvious move has been to restore to a place of privilege the Church’s solidarity with the poor. This is quite distinct from specifically liberationist theological commitments (understood as finding God primarily or exclusively in the struggle for justice), but it is also more than a change in style. Bergoglio will be a powerful voice reminding not only Catholics but humanity as a whole that the poor are still among us, and that their demands are just and cannot be ignored, at a time when everyone (even many on the “cultural” left) would like to forget about them.

Second, he has strongly reaffirmed the catholicity of the Church, in the sense that it is not the private property of one or another theological tendency. This is reflected in his decision to canonize both John XXIII and John Paul II, and to raise the question of the sanctity of John Paul I (actually the most challenging and courageous move, since it is a challenge to curial murderers who might easily see him as a target for the same treatment). Bergoglio is clearly saying that you don’t have to belong to a specific theological party in order to be Catholic.

Third, Bergoglio is challenging the way Catholics have thought about the relative importance of the leadership roles of bishops, theologians, and religious superiors. It is not clear that he has formulated a clear doctrine on this point and it is a difficult area given the complexity of the Catholic project. But in explaining his decision to canonize John XXIII without a second miracle he referred to the opinion of many contemporary theologians that such miracles are not necessary for canonical sanctity, implying that the opinions of theologians, if not definitive, are an important source on the basis of which episcopal rulings should be made. Even more radical is his statement that if the Jesuits have taken a vow to obey the pope, then perhaps a Jesuit pope should remain obliged to obey his Jesuit superiors, a claim which gives major superiors of religious orders a status they have not held since the middle ages. We will see if he extends this authority to the major superiors of women religious in the North America.

The one area where Bergoglio seems to promise the least change is with regard to the historic misogyny of the Catholic hierarchy. He has reaffirmed the claim that the teaching that Church lacks the authority to ordain women as priests. Even here, to be sure, he has distanced himself from the doctrine of Woytila and Ratzinger, according to which women could not be priests because they cannot image Jesus, who was male. Instead, he seems to regard the priests as extending the work of the apostles and their successors, the bishops, who were all male, while according women a “superior” (but effectively powerless) role extending the work of Mary who, as he says, is more important in the church than the apostles. This is an improvement, but may reflect his convictions regarding the superiority of religious life to that of the secular priesthood more than any real departure from hierarchical misogyny. On the one hand we must be realistic and understand that this man cannot fight on all fronts at once. On the other hand, whether his statements reflect his actual opinions or simply a tactical pose, we must continue to insist that the Church break with its misogyny as the condition for realizing its full potential as the carrier of the Catholic spiritual and civilizational project.

It is still far from clear what Bergoglio’s papacy will mean. There is reason for hope, especially for the poor and for those who know that they are still with us, that their demands are just, and that we cannot be decent, much less holy, unless we meet them.  There is also reason to believe that he will challenge conceptions of authority on both the left and the right and open up a potentially fruitful debate around this difficult and important question. It will probably be left to others to unveil fully the secret truth of the Catholic project: that it mediates our participation in the life of a God who lures us with Her beauty and challenges us as only a wife can, and that these ways of participating in the life of God are as real and holy as those centered on the image of God as Father, Brother, and Spirit.

Finally, we must note that while Bergoglio, as a Jesuit, likely brings to the table both a strategic and tactical sophistication and a power base greater than that of Papa Luciani, he also brings what at this point in the history of the church is a greater challenge to the “dark lords,” who have controlled the church for the past 35 years. Besides, the Jesuits have been broken before and could be broken again. Even as we challenge our brother in areas where we find his teaching and his governing wanting, we must protect him in every way we can from those who would harm him. This obligation extends, furthermore, not only to all Catholics but to all humanity. The dark lords have been set back, but they will strike again. We must be ready.



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Beyond Solutionism …

A former student of mine recently sent me an article by David Brooks entitled The Service Patch. Like many New York Times Op-Eds, the article addresses a wide range of loosely interconnected themes:  the preference of students from elite schools for the financial and high tech sectors over “production capitalism” and for the nonprofit sector over traditional service professions such as the ministry, the military, and government. He notes the tendency to substitute community service for a sense of meaning and value –and for the goals of such altruistic pursuits such as work on climate change, sustainable development , or ending poverty to be framed in largely utilitarian terms. The article concludes with a suggestion that it is not so much what one does that is important as how one does it and a recommendation that students spend less time mastering spreadsheets and more time reading Dostoevsky and the Book of Job.

These are all, of course, interesting observations and –up to his point– his observations are useful. But like so many insightful conservatives he misses the underlying forces behind the developments he bemoans. Students are drawn to finance and high technology because these are rising sectors and the rate of return on both capital and skilled labor is higher than in “production capitalism.” And many do seek to enter traditional service professions. Most liberal Protestant denominations are experiencing a clergy glut and entry into elite diplomatic, military, and intelligence organizations remains very competitive.  The appeal of the nonprofit world is largely that of a philanthropocapitalism which is parasitic on the financial and high tech sectors and which shares their underlying ideology: that there is either nothing wrong with the larger system of global capitalism or, more likely, nothing that can be done about it, but that great minds with great ideas and good business sense can go a long way towards solving particular global challenges. Behind it all lies a deeper emerging civilizational crisis. One hundred and fifty years ago the elites, at least (including revolutionary elites), believed that scientific and technological progress, or the creation of a collective political subject (the democratic state or revolutionary party) would allow humanity to transcend finitude and contingency. Today, after two World Wars, the Holocaust, and the failure of both capitalism and socialism to deliver on their utopian promises we know better.  Under such circumstances the temptation is either to just make as much money as possible or, for those who want to do something, to think small and in ideologically neutral terms  and develop the one great idea which will solve on particular problem (or to do both in that order).

The disease is serious and well advanced, and it needs stronger medicine than just a dose of Dostoevsky and a shot of the Book of Job. To be sure, I am inclined to agree with Brooks that the skepticism towards modernity and secularism which engagement with these two texts encourage (skepticism –not fanatical, mindless rejection) is a good first step. We need to re-engage the great spiritual traditions of the Axial Age and bring them into dialogue with each other and with modernity and postmodernity and see what have to tell us about what life means and about how we might approach the crisis of secularism and of capitalism and of socialism globally rather than just copping out and making money or losing ourselves in “solutionism.”  But this requires exemplary leaders who are living such an engagement themselves. It requires a university experience which more nearly resembles a religious novitiate than career preparation.  And it requires these things in a spirit of openness to diverse perspectives (religious and secular, left and right) and of respect for the right of students to make up their own minds.  In other words, we need to actually pay for our young people to spend time “finding themselves” and at the same time give them the tools they need to actually do so.

This kind of university experience is, unfortunately, hard to find. The majority of our universities have become factories producing skilled intellectual labor under the false pretense that the degrees they confer will also confer a monopoly rent on skill that just isn’t going to be there in a global information economy.  Elite research universities and liberal arts colleges have become more nearly agents of civilizational crisis than of civilizational renewal. They do a good job of teaching their students what is wrong with axial traditions, modern traditions, and now even postmodernity. But the education they offer does not engage students in a real and hopeful search for meaning.  The result is the cynical solutionism Brooks bemoans. A handful of religious universities offer more coherence and more respect for the search meaning and value, but only at the price of failing to fully engage modern and postmodern critiques and a globally pluralistic public arena in which people demand to make their own decisions regarding questions of meaning and value and do so in a way which explores questions and answers across as well as within traditions.

We need a new kind of university, one which allows students from all social classes to seriously engage questions of meaning and value in an open, critical, and pluralistic way, under the leadership of scholars who themselves actually embody the principles and values they teach and who are serious both about the search for meaning and about the future of human civilization. I, for one, think it would be a great investment.

Where are those philanthropocapitalists when you need them?


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