Resisting Neoliberal Hegemony

Nicholas Kristof, in an end of the year column entitled “This Has Been The Best Year Ever,”. (New York Times, 28 December 2019) presents compelling, but ultimately deceptive evidence that:

“In the long arc of human history, 2019 has been the best year ever.

The bad things that you fret about are true. But it’s also true that since modern humans emerged about 200,000 years ago, 2019 was probably the year in which children were least likely to die, adults were least likely to be illiterate and people were least likely to suffer excruciating and disfiguring diseases.”

His numbers are solid —and should not be ignored. But the underlying forces behind the progress he identifies are, in the end, neither healthy or sustainable. Specifically, the progress Kristof identifies is the result, by and large, of 1) technological progress which allows us to exploit the resource base of our planet more effectively and 2) more extensive and intensive exploitation of the human population.

The most deceptive figure that he cites, because it seems to contradict claims of growing inequality, is the World Bank claim that the percentage of people living in extreme poverty (living on less than $2/day)dropped from 42% of the world’s population to just 10% of that population in 2015, using constant (2011) dollar measures.

This figure is not without political significance, to be sure. It is largely the result of the incorporation of a vastly larger percentage of the population into capitalist relations of production which employ them in industrial process of production which are more “productive” in the sense of creating greater value added, a small and in some cases increasing portion of which is shared with the workers in the form of higher wages. Forty years ago most of the people who have now moved out of “extreme poverty were either subsistence peasants or marginalized surplus population subsisting in the informal economy in the barrios and favelas of the old Third World. What the figure tells us is that the strict “Third Worldist” analysis of the global economy, set forth by theoreticians such as Samir Amin (Amin 1978/1980) turns out to be wrong. According to this analysis, capitalist development is either impossible in low wage countries because of the absence of an internal market for manufactured goods, or else does not lead to economic growth and higher wages. More importantly from a political perspective, the surplus produced by workers in the Third World is shared with workers in the imperial metropoles, resulting in wages which are higher than the value of their labor power, creating a privileged “labor aristocracy” which has no interest in anticapitalist revolution. On the contrary, since the defeat of the national liberation movements and the advent of the neoliberal regime in 1978-1989, we have witnessed rapid growth across much though not all of the Third World, and rising wages in its more “advanced” regions, such as China.

This does not, however, mean that either neoliberalism or capitalist development generally are good things. First of all, from an ecological and technological vantage point, the development which has taken place is based on Second Industrial Revolution technologies which have led to continued rising carbon emissions at a time when we need to cut them in half by 2030. Redeployment of industrial production to low wage countries has allowed the continued exploitation of destructive industrial technologies which more prosperous populations would no longer tolerate, instead of forcing the development of new technologies with a lower carbon footprint.

Second, the development which has taken place is based on the more extensive and intensive exploitation of human labor power. By extensive exploitation we mean the incorporation of ever larger sectors of the human population in the capitalist labor force (i.e. proletarianization). A much larger percentage of the population is being forced to sell its labor power in order to survive —and is then being told that they should be grateful for it. By intensive exploitation we mean that these workers are using more advanced technologies, and therefore producing a much higher surplus, so that the gap between the richest and everyone else continues to expand even as wages in the poorest countries grow and the most extreme poverty declines.

This is not to say that none of the gains are real. Viewed in a longue duree perspective, industrialization and capitalist development were adaptations to conditions in Europe in the late Middle Ages (low population and thus a perpetual labor shortage, creating an incentive to invest in labor saving devices coupled with a surplus population of landless aristocrats who for historically contingent, partly epidemiological and partly technological reasons, were able to conquer the planet and carry out the primitive accumulation of capital necessary to “jump-start” the process of industrialization). The result allowed Europe and, at least temporarily the planet, to support a much higher population than would otherwise have been possible. And not all of the resulting technological advances —such as those which have reduced child mortality— are bad.

The problem, rather, is that the optimistic neoliberal reading of the current situation is based on a fundamental misunderstanding of both the sustainability of industrial technology and of the ends of human life. Industrial technology is defined by the dynamic of literally and figuratively combusting existing forms of organization, whether mineral or plant or animal (including organized human communities) in order to release energy and do work. Combustion has always been part of humanity’s adaptation to this planet, but industrial technology brings it to the fore. We have, for the past 200 years —or more, if we consider the “combustion” of human communities— been burning through what Buckminster Fuller called humanity’s “cosmic energy savings account.” It is not surprising that we have compromised the habitability of the planet.

People will, sometimes, appear to choose such combustion —even the combustion of their lives and of their communities— whether because those lives and communities have already been torn apart by the penetration of capitalist relations of production into the countryside and they simply have no other way to survive, or because they fall for the lure of a “better” high consumption life (and often through a complex combination of these two motives). European peasants did it in the nineteenth and twentieth century and peasants throughout Asia, Africa, and Latin America are doing it now. But it is a choice that we make against our own humanity. First, vanishingly little of the surplus we create ends up in our own hands. This is true even where there are rising wages. But more importantly, we are not mere batteries, and cannot live as such. When we are forced to sell our labor power in order to survive we sell our autonomy and our sociality and our creative capacity. We sell our very humanity.

What is more, after selling our humanity for several generations, we forget what we are. We imagine that we really are just consumers and that a few bumps in the road notwithstanding, everything really is getting better. When this happens, resistance –and ultimately humanity– come to an end.

This is why both Third Worldists and acellerationists (Right and Left) are wrong. Third Worldists are wrong because even the most privileged “First World” worker, even one who is actually benefiting from surplus extracted from the Third World, has an interest in transcending capitalism. The deepest suffering imposed by capitalism is not impoverishment but rather the loss of autonomy, of community, and of creative control over our work. Accellerationsts are wrong because continuing along our present pathway at an ever faster pace, even if we someone escape climate apocalypse, will destroy our humanity and there will be nothing left except robots and consumers.

This is not, to be sure, to suggest that we can or should simply “aim the main blow” against capitalism and industrial technology. First, we are simply not ready. We need to develop new, hortic technologies that tap into the self-organizing dynamic of matter itself. Solar and wind are a start, and will hopefully get us past the current climate crisis, but there is a great deal more that needs to be done. We need a whole new way of producing that enhances rather than degrading the integrity of the ecosystem and the social fabric. We also need to develop new ways of organizing labor that do not require people to sell their labor power —something which historic socialism promised but did not even begin to deliver. On the contrary, nationalization and large scale collectivization of the means of production is simply another way to rapidly complete the process of proletarianization.

Second, the recent turn to the far right and especially the rise of the Dark Enlightenment which brings together Right Accelerationist and Ethnonationalist tendencies, threatens to effectively destroy the liberal and democratic rights for which humanity has struggled for thousands of years. We have an authentic common cause with much of the liberal bourgeoisie, an alliance which may even deepen if, as I have argued elsewhere, Capital continues to emerge as an autonomous intelligence independent of the historic bourgeoisie. And the willingness of the liberal bourgeoisie, acting through its political parties, to take serious action around climate change, to expand publically subsidized health care coverage, to support LGBTQ rights and to strengthen protections against sexual violence, and even to consider measures like a universal basic income represent not only significant extensions of liberal rights but also our best hope for averting climate apocalypse and beginning to gradually decommodify labor power. A popular front against the Dark Enlightenment, complemented by in-depth organizing and community building to create the material and spiritual conditions for transcending capitalism and industry, remains the correct strategy for the working classes worldwide.

This said, Kristof’s “reminder” that things are still getting better no matter how bad they seem represents an intervention within the popular front to secure the hegemony of the liberal bourgeoisie. It is, in effect, an apology for technocracy, for the idea that continued technological progress along current lines, coupled with intelligent social engineering will eventually resolve the planet’s problems —with no need to call into question the underlying structures of capitalism or the debased civilizational ideal it serves. This is one of the principal forms of hegemony of the liberal bourgeoisie within the aptly named Progressive Alliance, and it stands in the way of questioning the bourgeois outlook on the aims of human life by making all questions ultimately technical. Technocratic hegemony is also frequently mediated by the demand that initiatives be assessed by quantifiable measures.

The other principal form of liberal bourgeois hegemony is the ideal of meritocracy and the associated Protestant Ethic, according to which our wealth and social status reflect our usefulness to society and our usefulness to society our underlying character and spiritual state. The implication, of course, is that the bourgeoisie is, in fact, simply superior.

As long as people believe these lies, we will will never have any choice except that between liberal capitalism and authoritarian capitalism. But our task is a delicate one that requires the greatest political subtlety and maturity. For now, the electoral arena, at least above the level of congressional districts in key multicultural urban areas, belongs to the bourgeoisie and we must be willing to offer unrestricted support to the liberal bourgeoisie in upcoming general election cycles if we are to defeat Trump and his allies in Europe and Russia, Turkey and India and deal a setback to the powerful authoritarian tendencies at work in our society. This does not mean that we cannot press more radical policy initiatives where they actually have a chance —but then that would be in a Democratic Congress under a Democratic President —or, in Europe, under social democratic or social liberal governments –i.e. governments of the liberal bourgeoisie. And it is certainly worth working out detailed transitional policies which provide a credible and minimally disruptive pathways for unwinding or dependence on fossil fuels, the nexus between private insurance and health care and between higher education and meritocracy, while building broad mass support for a universal basic income and a shorter work week. And we must, above all, resist the liquidation of public liberal education in which the liberal bourgeoisie has been fully complicit in recent years. After generations of being forced to sell their labor power, the older popular, democratic, and religious traditions of the working classes which provided a language in which to articulate anticapitalist resistance have withered away. Increasingly, with out revolutionary theory there really can be no revolutionary movement.

But most of our work in challenging the liberal bourgeoisie for hegemony in the popular front will need to be at the base: building communities of meaning and value which restore to the people the aspiration for autonomous creativity and democratic solidarity, while identifying, cultivating, and mentoring leaders who can carry the struggle across generations. We must begin to restore the lost commons which allowed people to survive without selling themselves, and create sanctuaries in which their new found sense of meaning can be nurtured. This is the really hard work, as progress is slow and almost always impossible to measure.

It is good to know that the past 500 years are not a dead loss. But imagining that the underlying processes which led to these gains will resolve the challenges of the next steps in the human civilizational project is a fundamental mistake. Capitalism and industry are exhausting themselves and exhausting humanity. It is time for a new departure.

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Civilization and Revolution

Civilization and Revolution: it is rare indeed to hear these two terms joined by a conjunction. The term “civilization” is invoked most often by conservatives defending the values of a particular civilization or perhaps by liberal cosmopolitans hoping to trade the neoconservative “clash of civilizations” for a dialogue. Revolutionaries have, at least since Rousseau, been skeptical about the discipline which civilization imposes on “natural” humanity, or nervous about the racism and imperialism implicit in the distinction between civilized and … “other” societies.

This essay will suggest a different perspective, one which makes commitment to the human civilizational project fundamental to any authentic revolutionary stand and which suggests that, especially as humanity approaches the point at which Capital emerges as an autonomous power independent of the historic bourgeoisie, and as human labor power approaches obsolescence, the distance between authentic conservatism and authentic revolution is rapidly disappearing.

In order to make this case we will need, to begin with, to define our terms. We will then go on to show how revolutionary transformations are, in fact, constitutive of the human civilizational project, and how it is service to that project which separates revolutionary transformations from interest group politics —and anticivilizational violence. Finally, we will draw out at some length the implications of this distinction for the way in which we approach the current situation developing, in the process, a new understanding of what a transition to a postcapitalist society might actually look like.


What, then, is civilization? And what do we mean by the “human civilizational project?” And what exactly is “revolution” as opposed to other forms of social change?

Let me be clear that I do not understand civilization primarily by contrast with pre-urban band, tribal, or village based human social formations. Rather, I understand by the human civilizational project the protracted process by which a rational animal —homo sapiens in particular— deepens, over the course of millennia, its understanding of its own individual and collective aims and develops the technological, economic, political, and cultural means to realize those aims. I prefer the term to something like “social evolution” because it embraces spiritual as well as material aims, and I prefer it to spiritualization or spiritual evolution because it embraces the very material means by which human spiritual aims must be pursued.

Understood in this way, the human civilizational project forms an integral part and a critically important phase in a much larger cosmohistorical process, by means of which matter (the potential for Being), drawn out by the attractive power of Being as such, gradually gives birth to spirit (Mansueto 1995) and the eternal manifests itself under the conditions of space and time.

The concept of civilization is, in fact, essential to any complete and consistent social theory. As we have argued at length in other contexts (Mansueto 2002a, 2010, 2016), the principal traditions of secular social theory are, as they stand, incomplete. Historical materialism (Marx 1846, 1848), for example, while quite correct that political and cultural institutions grow up on a definite material basis, forgets that labor is from the beginning an intellectual act. And this is true not just in the sense of requiring techne or excellence in making, but in the sense of requiring wisdom, which comprehends the broader purposes to which that techne is ordered. This, in turn, presupposes an entire ideological, cultural, and religious context in which those purposes are embedded. And it presupposes the single, final end to which all other partial and intermediate ends are ordered. What human beings seek is the power of Being as such —what the philosophical tradition across humanity’s diverse spiritual traditions has understood to be God. In this sense, Sartre (Sartre 1943) was correct when he called humanity “the desire to be God.”

Interpretive sociology (Weber 1920), on the other hand, correctly points out that human social action is constituted by the meanings with which we endow this action, apart from which it is neither human nor comprehensible. But it leaves the genesis of those meanings unexplained and fails to account for the ways in which our understanding of the aims of human life, not to mention our ability to realize those aims, is constrained by material conditions and social structures.

Functionalism, finally, whether in its original Durkheimian form (Durkheim 1917) or as modified and “completed” by Talcott Parsons attempts to bring these two sides together, arguing that all social forms are adaptive to both the material environment and to what Parsons, following Tillich, calls “ultimate reality.” But while both (Durkheim much more than Parsons) recognize that there may be strains and tensions in this adaptive process, they both miss the critical element of contradiction which gave historical materialism its revolutionary dynamism and enabled it to explain social change. Structures —and ideals— which serve civilizational progress and thus human development at one point in history not only can but generally do become obstacles at later points in history. Without this insight the theory tends either to yield too much either to cautious reformism or to historical ungrounded and acontextual revolutionary spontaneity.

In order to solve this problem we need to recognize that what we humans seek at the most basic animal level of our existence: nutrition, growth, and reproduction, sensation and locomotion, is the same as what we seek at the highest levels of spiritual development: it is Being as such, simply understood in a different way and to a different degree. Thus our correction of historical materialism, which argues that human civilization, as we have defined it above:

Emerges on a definite material basis, physical, biological, social, etc.
And uses definite structures: technological, economic, political, and cultural, to
Pursue particular spiritual and civilizational ideals which emerge on the basis of and are conditioned by this material and structural base.

Human societies can change, sometimes radically, for reasons which begin at any of these various levels. The ecosystem may change, becoming hotter or colder, wetter or dryer. The structures by which the society is pursuing its particular civilizational ideal may develop internal contradictions or cease to serve that ideal. Or the ideal itself may begin to seem partial and inadequate.

This understanding of civilization, in turn, provides us with our definition of a properly revolutionary stand, and allows us to understand both how close it is to an authentic conservatism (and even to the perennialist form of traditionalism) and exactly where it differs. Both the authentic conservative and the authentic revolutionary value human civilization. The conservative, however, tends to identify the human civilizational project with his or her particular civilizational ideal and the particular institutions which have emerged to serve that ideal, even where that ideal falls short of the ultimate aim of the project as a whole, which is the power of Being as such and even where those institutions have failed to realize that ideal, a result which is falsely attributed to the limitations of materiality or humanity in general. The perennialist traditionalist, similarly identifies (with limited but not complete justification, cf Mansueto 2016) the human civilizational project with a sofia perennis shared across civilizations from which social transformation represents, at best, a falling away. To be revolutionary is, on the other hand, to privilege the ultimate aim of the human civilizational project over any of its concrete expressions and to constantly question whether or not the institutions we have developed to realize our ideal still actually serve it.

This said, we also need to distinguish between a revolutionary stand and voluntarism, utopianism, and maximalism. This is, in fact, (along with his theory of alienation and his analysis of capitalist society) one of Marx’s greatest contributions. “Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past (Marx 1852).” The simple fact that a civilizational ideal is limited and incomplete (which they all are) or that structures and institutions fail to serve an ideal perfectly (they all do) does not mean that we have reached the point historically at which a new ideal can emerge or a structural transformation (which is what historical materialists generally meant by revolution) can take place. Voluntarists ignore this fact and attempt either to force the hand of history by imposing transformations for which the conditions are not yet ripe. Utopians withdraw from what they regard as failed and hopeless civilization and attempt to live their ideal in secluded communities. The principal danger in the present period, however, is neither voluntarism nor utopianism. It is maximalism. Maximalists assume that the immediate benefits of revolutionary transformation are so obvious that once they are explained, the people will embrace them swiftly and allow what they imagine to be a revolutionary transformation to take place at the ballot box. They thus put forward a maximum program and try to sell it on the basis of its immediate material benefits. The result is always defeat.

Conservatives need to become revolutionaries. They need to own the fact that the principles values they uphold are only an approximation of the real ends of human life, which are beyond comprehension, and that the institutions which serve those ideals are flawed, often in fundamental and oppressive ways, marked by commodification, misogyny, and racism. But revolutionaries also need to become conservatives, and re-reading Marx will help us accomplish this. We cannot change human societies in just any way we want to. We can only address the the contradictions of the present period, situating those, to be sure, in their broader historical and meta-civilizational context, and doing the hard work of both conserving and transforming in the precise ways the current situation demands.


How does this play out historically? In ways that contemporary conservatives and revolutionaries alike will probably find at least paradoxical and probably rather disturbing. Because we seek the power of Being as such, we humans can never be satisfied with any finite or contingent good. We seek (to become) God, but do not know what this really means. And so, as soon as the technology became available, (bronze in Afroeurasia, very sophisticated stone such as obsidian in the Americas) we made weapons, conquered our near neighbors, and extracted tribute from them with aim living off their labor and requiring that they build heavens for us in the form of temples and palaces. It didn’t work. Subject to rents, taxes, and forced labor people stopped innovating and the whole system collapsed after a few thousand years (around 1200 BCE in Afroeurasia; later on the American timeline). But conquest and enslavement of the vast majority of humanity was the first revolution, the one which set the whole historical process in motion.

Would another way have been possible? I am inclined to think that it was and that we see it in the great megalithic cultures which developed in the late Neolithic, which built temple complexes linking together many villages in support of the ritual exploration and dissemination of meaning, the exploration of the arts and sciences, and the organization of labor to undertake projects beyond the capacity of any one village. But not every ecosystem could support this strategy, and metal technology (especially when combined with the domestication of the horse) opened up what at least looked like a faster route and one which spread rapidly enough to wipe out the alternatives.

The result, of course, was to infect the human civilizational project from very early on with the great evils with which we still struggle. Warfare, a predominantly though not exclusively male activity (because it so interferes with the extended nurture human children require) shifted the balance of power against women, who in horticultural societies were probably on at least an equal footing with men. The vast majority of human beings, rather than being free to seek Being individually or in community, as best they could, became tools of the dynasts who sought it for themselves alone. And conquest and empire began to teach humanity that some peoples are superior to others, a lesson we are only now beginning to unlearn.

From this point on, of course, it was above all the oppressed —those whose aspirations for the divine have been crushed— who become the social basis for subsequent revolutions. It was ultimately a series of peasant revolts which set off humanity’s next revolution, which brought about the Axial Age, the period between 800 BCE and 200 BCE which witnessed the problematization of religious meaning, the demand that everyone be able to fully participate in the economic, political, and cultic life of their communities, and which began to subject claims about meaning and value to conceptual formalization and critical scrutiny. This is the period which gave us Judaism and Hellenism, Hinduism and Buddhism, the Confucian and Taoist traditions, and indirectly, through them, Christianity and Islam, liberalism, democracy, and communism. This was the second revolution, and the great traditions which define the sofia perennis to which authentic conservatives are devoted were, in fact, the product, indirectly at least, of peasant revolts.

This was, in the end, a very incomplete revolution. Partly this was due to limitations in the axial traditions themselves. None of these traditions mount a real critique of patriarchy, for example. But material conditions played the predominant role. Full cultic participation did not always mean access to philosophical wisdom and thus rational autonomy. Rational autonomy did not always mean access to full and equal participation in the public arena. And participation in the public arena did not necessarily mean a life devoted to seeking wisdom, doing justice, and ripening being. And this was, above all, because (as Marx would later point out regarding the liberal and democratic revolutions) those who are forced to spend their lives laboring for others are in no position to access these higher goods. And to the extent that the axial revolutions did transform material conditions, the structures they created could not endure. Subsistence peasant production protected from exploitation by limits on the rate of surplus extraction of the sort we find in ancient Israel and under the Zhou dynasty gave way to petty commodity production —generally of specialized agricultural products like oil, wine, and spices, and craft products like textiles and pottery— for global trade. This in turn led to economic differentiation. In some places, such as Athens, further peasant revolts slowed down this process. But in the end, as this highly successful economic model spread, the comparative of early adopters evaporated. Real wealth —and thus real freedom from toil— required the exploitation not of a local comparative advantage but rather of entire segments of the global trade network. By 200 BCE new empires arose which did just this. Because these empires looked to the now dominant axial traditions for legitimation, those traditions were able to soften the oppression exercised by these empires, but only in part.

That the axial revolutions were unable to fully realize their aims is no reason to reject their achievements, and especially the profound spiritual traditions they bequeathed us. At the same time, we need to avoid the conclusion drawn by many conservitives. Those who see to conserve the achievements of these revolutions in spite of their limitations realize (correctly) that the full realization of human aspirations is impossible under conditions of finitude and contingency. But they then make this an excuse for not engaging the continued instrumentalization of humanity by human beings.

The third revolution was the product of technological developments which began in the Silk Road Era. Wet rice cultivation in China and India, the enormous progress of irrigation technology and horticulture in Dar-al-Islam, and the development of the transhumant pastoralism and the three field system in Europe all vastly increased agrarian productivity and made it possible to free up a much larger portion of the human population for non-agricultural labor: crafts and manufacturing, trade, warfare, politics, scientific, scholarly and creative activity and spiritual practice. In China, India, and Dar-al-Islam, the resulting increase in the food supply led to massive increases in population, perpetuating, for the time being, the reliance on human labor for production. But in much of Europe populations were lower to begin with and just as they were taking off they were “pruned back” by the Black Death, creating an incentive to invest in labor saving devices. At roughly the same time (the twelfth century CE), the process of feudal expansion, through which newly improved or improvable arable land was granted out to succeeding generations of knights bachelor/ was completed, creating pressure for military-territorial expansion which found expression in the Crusades, the Reconquista, and the Conquests of Asia, Africa, and the Americas. This expansion, in turn, both helped forge absolutist sovereign nation states and provided the greater part of the primitive accumulation of capital necessary for industrialization.

The result was two competing civilizational trajectories. One, centered in the newly prosperous peasants emancipated through successful peasant revolts in England, the Low Countries, and Northern Italy and in the expanding urban bourgeoisie and petty bourgeoisie everywhere in Europe, sought to extend the axial project by creating political subjects which could make humanity the master of its own destiny and liberate human creativity from the predations of exploiting classes. This is the genesis of liberal, democratic, and ultimately communist humanism. The other, centered on the absolutist state and eventually on the large merchant, emerging industrial, and financial bourgeoisie was focused on leveraging the results of the scientific revolution to maximize productivity and ultimately transcend finitude by means of technological and economic progress. This trajectory found expression in the Protestant Reformation, and especially the Reformed tradition, and eventually in the global capitalist order we inhabit today.

These trajectories have not always been opposed. The liberation of labor from drudgery is necessary to support even a liberal —much less a democratic or communist— humanism would be impossible without technological progress beyond that which made the axial revolutions possible. But by the middle of the nineteenth century it was apparent that the two trajectories were, at the very least, in profound tension with each other. As Marx made clear in the Paris Manuscripts, those who are forced to sell their labor power —in a capitalist society the vast majority— can never fully develop or realize their creative potential. And capitalism is all about exploiting human creativity as efficiently as possible.

The civilization which has emerged has struggled to hold these two ideals together, making each serve the other. We thus have (classical, or liberal-conservative) liberals who believe that their capacity for self-determination is dependent on absolute private property rights and (social) liberals who believe that it is possible only on the basis of a rational autonomy the capacity for which requires extended education, and the free exercise of which requires significant counterweights, generally in the form of state intervention, to the power of larger private property. We have radical/civic democrats who believe that humanity finds fulfillment in the process of collectively determining its destiny and plebiscitary/utilitarian democrats who believe that democracy is all about giving “the people” what they want. We have socialists and communists who believe that the development of the productive forces will allow us to transcend scarcity and allow us to transcend the commodification of labor power and liberate human creativity once and for all, and socialists and communists who believe that this emphasis on the development of the productive forces simply perpetuates the instrumentalization of human creative capacity.

We have these, but mostly we have those who have embraced what Walter Benjamin Benjamin 1921) called “capitalism as a religion,” a (further) secularized form of Weber’s Protestant Ethic (Weber 1921) in which the Calvinist God who was a reflex of Capital is collapsed into Capital itself, a religion which Benjamin described as “without mercy or truce.” Most live this religion unconsciously, believing themselves to be Jews, Christians, or Muslims, Buddhist or Hindus, Confucians or Taoists, liberals, democrats, or socialists. A small elite embrace it consciously, though even they tend soften its infinite austerity with the conviction that they are among the optimally adapted elect and with the hope that technological progress will lead them to immortality or even divinization. But more on that later. From the vantage point of those fully initiated into the cult of Capital what remains of the axial traditions, along with liberalism (even classical liberal-conservatism), democracy, and socialism (particularly specified as being “with Chinese characteristics” are simply forms of legitimation for a project they know ordinary humans could never embrace.

As Marx demonstrated, capitalism is inherently unstable. Technological progress, which ultimately drives the accumulation of Capital, also increases its organic composition and thus lowers the rate of profit, leading to the redeployment of Capital to low technology, low skill, low wage activities (read imperialism). By reducing the work necessary to reproduce labor power, it also drives down the value of labor power, ultimately towards zero, leading to crises of underconsumption. For a very long time now, a combination of technocratic supply and demand side management and liberal, democratic, and/or socialist legitimation have kept the system stable. But now we are reaching a critical moment.

But will it, as many seem to believe, be a socialist moment? The mainstream of the workers movement, both Social Democratic and Communist, believed that the road forward towards communism was to seize control of the state, whether by electoral struggle or insurrection or popular war, and then to use the state to collectivize and transform the economy. Most (both Social Democrats and Soviet Communists) looked to the state to accelerate technological progress with the aim of eventually transcending scarcity and liberating labor from commodification. The result was that socialist societies, deferring decommodification until “after the millennium,” left intact an alienation of labor which undercut humanity’s ordering to the realization of its own creative potential —and ultimately their support for the socialist project. Indeed, workers in the Soviet Union did not even remain firm in their support for the very substantial and fruitful Soviet investment in civilizational progress in arenas as diverse as the arts, science, and philosophy, technology, and sports, achievements which are real and which, in the shadow of the Soviet collapse and the rise of what amounts to a criminal oligarchy, must not be forgotten. Others, especially Maoists, looked to the party-state to lead a Cultural Revolution which would essentially abolish egoism and create a new humanity in which everyone is a saint and commodification can be achieved even without abolishing scarcity because everyone already wants to do what the common good requires.

A careful reading of Marx should have been enough for us to realize that both approaches would yield catastrophic results. But a careful reading of Marx presupposes a “conservative” respect for the broader civilizational traditions in which he is located and for the very real constraints imposed by material and structural conditions. Superexploitation of the working classes in order to promote rapid economic growth, whether under capitalism or under a socialism which leaves the commodification of labor intact is not going to cultivate a communist desire to cultivate one’s creative capacity in service to the common good. It will, on the contrary, create demoralized materialistic workers who feel used, abused, and apathetic. Study and struggle campaigns, often accompanied by grotesque violence, do not cultivate saints but rather cynical conformists and sadistic political-ideological operatives.

The error here is different from that made by axial conservatives, but no less dangerous. It is the claim that materiality itself, the condition of finitude and contingency under which we live, can be transcended by technological and political means. This is simply not true and we have seen that attempts to do so lead to violence and demoralization. They also draw attention away from the difficult spiritual work required if we are to transcend patriarchy, the commodification of labor power, and the racist legacy of empire.


Where does this leave us?

Notwithstanding the the contradictions of the socialist project outlined above, there are many, especially among the millennial generation, who seem to have decided that the time has at last arrived for a “democratic socialism.” While I share their hope that a progressive exit from the current crisis is at least possible, as well as a dedication to historic aims (decommodification) of which I am not certain they are even fully aware, I am less confident that democratic socialism, at least as they understand it, is on the horizon, both because the problems of capitalism notwithstanding, the conditions are still far from ripe and because I am increasingly inclined to believe that the state has real limits as an instrument for social transformation.

In what remains of this essay I would like to sketch out my analysis of the current crisis of the human civilizational project and explain what I would offer in place of “democratic socialism.”

I have written elsewhere that the failure of both capitalism and historic socialism to realize the secular ideal of deification by means of innerworldly civilizational progress has created a situation of general civilizational crisis (Mansueto 2010). We now stand at a critical juncture in the unfolding of this crisis, a juncture defined by two principal developments: 1) the impending obsolescence of human labor power as the result of technological progress leading to the automation of ever more human functions and 2) the emergence of Capital as an autonomous power, independent of the historic bourgeoisie. These two developments radically alter the political-theological terrain and represent an existential threat to the human civilizational project of a kind it may well never have faced before.

The first of these developments has long been foreseen by historical materialism, even if historic socialism postponed it into an almost eschatologically distant future. It is not at all clear, even now, just how long it will take to reach the point at which essentially everything that Capital desires or everything humanity as a whole requires (two different things) can be satisfied without direct human labor. Most likely we are still looking at hundreds of years. And even then we will not have fully transcended scarcity. Human aspirations are infinite, and there will thus always be struggles around how limited resources should be allocated. And as we have pointed out elsewhere, there are grave questions about whether or not automation, to the extent that if involves machine intelligence, simply reinstates the problem of slavery. But we are entering a period in which it is possible to imagine freeing up a qualitatively greater percentage of human labor for creative activity —and also to imagine that Capital might conclude that it no longer needs humanity.

The second development, the emergence of Capital as an autonomous power, was not foreseen by historical materialism and has not, to my knowledge, been thematized by any significant trend in social theory. By the emergence of Capital as an autonomous power we mean, quite literally, the emergence of what amounts to a superhuman intelligence operating across the market system, assisted but not utterly dependent on information technologies as well as (at least up to this point) what amount to human technicians, aimed at maximizing profit and the accumulation of Capital. It is, in effect, an asuric power which aims to liberate itself from humanity. This does not, to be sure, mean that it might never develop its own spiritual and civilizational projects. Everything, even the asura are, after all, participants in the power of Being as such. And the Buddhist tradition in particular reminds us that even asura can take refuge and seek enlightenment. But thus far, at this primitive stage of its development, it shows every sign of a ruthless disregard for humanity and for the cultivation of complex organization in the universe.

Both of these developments are directly the result of the implementation of the neoliberal regime of accumulation after roughly 1978, a process which presupposed the defeat of the Soviet bloc, the national liberation movements and the peasant communities which formed their principal base, and the effective destruction of the workers movement, especially in the old imperial metropoles. This defeat of the combined forces of historic socialism, in turn, permitted the full development and implementation of information technologies available since at least the end of the Second World War (which had been held back by policies protecting older technologies and older ways of organizing labor), something which both created the information technological matrix and the global market out of Capital has emerged as an autonomous power, as well as unleashing the automation of an ever larger percentage of the labor which Capital requires. This, in turn, led to the predictable stagnation and even decline of wages (including the social wage paid through income transfers and free or subsidized state services) in the imperial metropoles but also, rather surprisingly (probably because of the sheer increase in productivity), to rapid growth, including significant growth in wages, in the old Third World, significantly reducing, though by no means eliminating the metropolitan privilege which defined the historic schism between social liberalism and social democracy on the one hand and the national liberation movements and communism on the other (Amin 1978/1980).

Indeed, the alliance between the then advanced sectors of the bourgeoisie based in the consumer durables sector and the privileged sectors of the working classes in the old imperial metropoles which supported the Democratic Party in the United States and the various social democratic and left Social Christian parties in Europe effectively collapsed, leaving the nonintellectual working classes without effective representation. What replaced it was a much weaker “left neoliberal” alliance, generally called the Third Way or Center Left, which integrated elements in the finance, information, and high technology sectors of Capital with a much smaller base in the technocratic petty bourgeoisie and high skilled and intellectual working class which was able to profit, sometimes quite handsomely, from the new regime of accumulation. The humanistic intelligentsia, both petty bourgeois and working class, and the historically oppressed minorities, supported the Center Left largely because of its support for women’s reproductive rights, cultural cosmopolitanism, and more liberal migration policies –and the absence of a credible alternative.

This Center Left differed from the neoliberal Center Right only by degree. Both shared the conviction that it was necessary to break the power of labor (now classed simply as a special interest, with attention focused especially on public sector unions) and to scale back social wages; they simply disagreed on how fast and how far this process should go. And the Center Left, unlike the Center Right, generally believed that part of the old welfare state should be replaced with funds to support education and training to enable more workers to profit from expanding high technology industries. The Center Right, on the other hand, defined itself electorally increasingly by means of an opportunistic appeal to religious, social, and ethno-national conservatism, appealing to resentment of the liberal cosmopolitanism which became the cultural mark (and which was in fact one of the principal assets) of the technogentry and the humanistic intelligentsia, and by “libertarian” attacks on the state bureaucracies which they convinced more and more workers were the principal cause of their marginalization. And they periodically “shared” the fruits of their attack on the state with the working classes in the form of tax cuts. But there was little reason to believe that their aims went further than the “perfection” of the neoliberal order they had helped to create, an order which took liberal norms and at least the pretense of democracy for granted.

Or so it appeared …

By 2008 this neoliberal condominium had reached an impasse. The immediate crisis was largely a result of the use of loose credit to shore up demand as wages declined, and of the development of increasingly luxuriant and baroque forms of financial speculation designed to circumvent the secular decline in the rate of profit as technology progressed. The immediate crisis, in other words, was a crisis of the means of stabilization of the neoliberal order. But those stabilizing (and ultimately destabilizing) measures were necessary because of the reassertion of the fundamental contradictions of capitalism itself. The response to the crisis, furthermore, which remained within the bounds of what both the Center Left and Center Right would accept (with the United States actually veering much further left than Europe during this period, providing essentially the only global stimulus), addressed largely the failure of the means of stabilization, not the underlying contradictions, even in the limited way that the New Deal and Great Society, coupled with WWII and Cold War had ameliorated underconsumption tendencies and the declining rate of profit in high technology sectors by means of social and military Keynesianism. Because of this the recovery, while very real and not very long in coming, in the sense that economic growth was restored, did very little to improve the conditions of the vast majority of the population. This, in turn, set the stage for another crisis, this one political.

Within this context the phenomenon of Barack Obama looks less and less important. We are only now beginning to have enough distance on the events of 2008 to put them into perspective, but it is clear that we must make a distinction between Barack Obama himself and the broader significance of his administration. Theologically Obama is technically a liberationist, convinced that we meet God first and foremost in the struggle for social justice. But he stands towards the rightward end of this trend, influenced, like several US Presidents before him, by Reinhold Niebuhr, who stressed the political implications of original sin, the impossibility of realizing the Kingdom of God on earth, and thus the importance of political realism. There is much within Obama’s formation which puts him outside the dominant neoliberal consensus, but his focus was always on working pragmatically within the existing structures, which during his lifetime showed no sign of changing, to advance the cause of justice and bend the arc of history ever so slightly more towards the Good.

It is, furthermore, important to remember that while Obama created, over the course of his campaigns and administration, something of an organization, Organizing for America, there was not, is not, and likely never will be an “Obama wing” of the Democratic Party in the sense that there most definitely is a Clinton wing and that there was a Kennedy wing which lives on in the left social liberal wing of the party which now stands between the Clintonian center and the new democratic socialist left. Obama had to work with these two wings of the party, the first of which embodied and led the left-neoliberal alliance and the second of which represented the old, defeated, social liberal alliance of the New Deal and Great Society eras, and after 2010 with a Center Right fearful of losing control of the Republican Party to wave after wave of extremists.

In this sense the Obama years represented a holding pattern, a period of drawing out the implications of the crisis of 2008 and of reflection regarding the implications of the deeper social trends which gave birth to that crisis. Under the circumstances, this was the best that we could expect and it is a sign of Obama’s maturity as a leader that he was able to accept it and make the best of it. And this would have continued under Hilary Clinton, who stands somewhat to the left of her husband and who, in any case, is smart enough to recognize the developing contradictions of neoliberalism.

The result of this interregnum, however, was fundamentally polarization, first of all within the bourgeoisie. The progressive sectors of the bourgeoisie moved cautiously to the left, so that by the time of Obama’s second term it was not at all unusual to hear proposals coming, even from within the bourgeoisie itself, for a minimum basic income and for a significant expansion of the social safety net. This represents the humanitarian response to the impending obsolescence of human labor power, as well as a recognition that capitalism, even if it no longer requires workers, does need consumers. Similar developments were apparent in Europe. Indeed, it was easy to believe during those years that while we could not expect the Center Left to lead the way to a postcapitalist future, we might be able to rely on it to create a safe space in which a relatively peaceful, albeit painfully protracted, transition might be organized.

It turned out, however, that other processes were at work. One critical result of the crisis was the effective liquidation of investment banking as an autonomous fraction of financial capital. While by no means consistent in its commitment to humanistic principles, outside of those elements in the bourgeoisie which had “retired” into philanthropy, investment bankers represented the closest thing to a conscious leadership within the bourgeoisie, organizing and directing, in so far as capitalism permitted, the centralization and allocation of resources through the capital formation and investment process, something which permitted at least some attention to human development and civilizational progress. This was a critical change in the structure of the bourgeoisie, as it lost its principal architectonic fraction, or at least subordinated it to commercial banking, which is less driven by relationship building and negotiation and more driven by market forces. The liquidation of investment banking represents a major step towards the emergence of Capital as an autonomous power, independent of the bourgeoisie.

Second, ever larger segments of the bourgeoisie, perhaps half-conscious that the dependence of Capital on labor was coming to an end, were busy finding ways to “slough off” their responsibilities to humanity. While the mass line of the Right evolved along religious, social, and ethno-nationalist conservative lines, its leadership migrated from right neoliberalism through libertarianism and objectivism (the doctrine taught by Ayn Rand) towards what has come to be known as neo-reaction or the Dark Enlightenment. The key break here was, on the one hand, a recognition that libertarian policies would never consistently be applied in a democratic setting and, on the other, that in the long run (given the impending obsolescence of human labor) democratic forms of legitimation were no longer necessary. The result was the evolution of the Republican Party in the US from the aggressive “right neoliberalism” of Reagan and the “compassionate conservatism” of the Bushes, itself compromised by the growing weight of the extractive sector in the party, through the Tea Party and ultimately to the alt-right and the Dark Enlightenment.

While in the past right neoliberalism had been based especially in the lower technology, lower skilled, lower wage sectors of capital, we now began to witness an emerging schism within the higher technology sectors of the bourgeoisie. Up until now information technology had largely served the information sector proper (entertainment) which in turn depends on selling its products to a mass, working class audience. It has thus tended to be fairly progressive, favoring investment in ecological integrity and human development and supporting at least a minimum social safety net, with some beginning to explore a possible basic minimum income. Now, however, as information technology advances towards creating an “internet of things” and large scale automation of skilled as well as unskilled human labor, a section of the high technology bourgeoisie, which has always been tempted by libertarian ideas, has moved sharply to the right, embracing right-transhumanism and the Dark Enlightenment. This trend is joined by elements in the biotechnology sector which are attracted to the neoracist Human Biodiversity trend.

While it is tempting to understand these developments as neofascist, there are important differences. Fascism mobilized racist, nationalistic, religious, and even democratic themes in order to mobilize and militarize the population in order to conquer or defend colonial empires at a time when this was a precondition for capitalist stabilization. Hitler, to be sure, went further, actually exterminating people he could have exploited, inaugurating a properly thanatic politics. What we are witnessing now is the obsolescence of both human labor and human capitalists and the thanatic character of the Right is now constitutive of its identity, even if it has thus far avoided explicit calls for the extermination of surplus populations.

There is also a very significant element within the scientific and technical intelligentsia which is moving to the Right. Transfixed by the long term promise of transhumanism and by the short term hope that they can escape into the bourgeoisie simply by means of issuing their own cryptocurrencies, these elements are gradually shifting their allegiance from humanity towards the incipiently intelligent technologies they have helped create.

Among the working classes the impending obsolescence of human labor has led, not surprisingly, to increasing desperation. But this desperation takes very different forms among different strata and fractions of the working classes, with sharp lines of demarcation especially along ethnic lines, with also very significant cleavages along the lines of gender and generation.

The question of just why workers do not behave the way historical materialism says they ought to –supporting a socialist or some other transition toward communism– or, more broadly at least in ways which reflect their immediate material interests, but instead time and time again are drawn towards right-wing parties and movements, is a locus classicus of social theory generally and critical theory in particular. But there is, in reality, no mystery here. The alienation of labor is a real alienation and Marx made a very significant error in not accounting for its impact on the actual political orientation of the working classes. While there are periods and conjunctures in which workers can be drawn to the left, there is a secular trend, matching the extent of the commodification of labor power, towards the formation of what Erich Fromm (Fromm 1941, 1947) called “unproductive orientations,” authoritarian, marketing, hoarding, etc. While the way in which Fromm formulates the problem varies from one context to another, the fundamental idea is simply that families socialize their children in order to survive in the society in which the actually live. In a capitalist society this requires both what he calls a marketing orientation –the ability to constantly sell oneself– and an element of authoritarianism or sado-masochism: the ability to submit to those in authority while dominating subordinates, and to identify with and take pleasure in both roles. The former orientation is more common among the bourgeoisie and petty bourgeoisie and among the more privileged, only semiproletarianized strata of the proletariat; the latter is more common among those who have only one thing to sell: their labor power. What we are seeing today, as at several past conjuctures (such at that leading up to the emergence of fascism in the 1920s and 1930s) is simply an intensification of this dynamic.

There are, however, dimensions of the dynamic which Fromm did not address. First, the authoritarian personality, while it has specifically capitalist forms, long predates capitalism and is a legacy of the emergence of warfare and conquest –and thus of the world historical defeat of the female sex. The authoritarian personality is, in other words, the patriarchal personality par excellence, focused on replacing living, organization relationships with dead order based on domination and submission (Daly 1984). While there are certainly plenty of women who share these authoritarian and patriarchal traits, this is why the Right is stronger among men than among women.

Second, the specifically capitalist form of the authoritarian personality is very much bound up with race and ethnicity. Specifically, it is connected with the mobilization of a secularized version of the Protestant Ethic to hierarchizes ethnic groups based on their productivity and on what I have elsewhere called the “Lockean Exception” which criminalizes African Americans and increasingly undocumented immigrants (Mansueto 2016b). Those who are have historically had something to sell, and thus feel themselves to be “productive,” take it as a sign they they and others like them are among the “elect,” if not in a theological then at least in a biological or cultural evolutionary sense. Those who do not are regarded as potentially or actually criminal and thus subject deportation, mass incarcertaion or, apparently, even summary execution.

This is not to suggest than an identity centered on productivity cannot be mobilized from the Left or Center as well as the Right. It was to this identity that the old Socialist and Communist Parties appealed, and it is no accident that in the United States between 1894 and 1945 they did so more successfully among Jews and Catholics than among Protestants and among German and Scandanavian Lutherans than among Calvinists. These traditions value work and productivity but take it as sign of service to the community rather than of individual election. And of course the prolonged process of organizing which created the immigrant mutual benefit societies, labor movement and the Socialist and Communist Parties inflected the meaning of this identity in a way which mobilized it not just in service to the Common Good in general, but in service to the struggle against capitalism.

We see a Centrist mobilization of this identity, but with much deeper concessions to the Lockean Exception in Bill Clinton’s appeal to those who “work hard and play by the rules.” And we see how quickly the identity can be reconfigured with rightist political valence in Mitt Romney’s appeal in 2012, to “makers” as against “takers.” In 2012 this appeal was not credible enough to grant the Republicans victory, but in 2016, with the liberal bourgeoisie moving to the left along a trajectory determined by the obsolescence of human labor and thus of the working class, the Democratic Party had little to offer non-intellectual workers at the level of meaning and identity. The Republicans, on the other hand, who since 1968 had been deploying a mass line centered on covert appeals to race, were able to use far more explicit appeals in 2016 to capture much of this vote.

What has happened to strengthen the political salience of the authoritarian personality? As the commodification of labor power proceeds there has been a gradual erosion of the nonmarket institutions which sustained alternative identities. There was also a sustained rightwing assault on one of the most important of these institutions –the Catholic Church– which in the 1960s had become one of the most powerful strategic reserves for the Left

The destruction of the mutual benefit societies and the European immigrant communities in particular by the Second World War and the suburbanization which followed, and of the labor movement by neoliberalism effectively undid this progressive mobilization of the working class identity centered on productivity.

In this sense, it was not “economic anxiety” but rather the racist and misogynist identities which had developed among working class men, fundamentally as a result of the alienation resulting from the commodification of labor power, but intensified and mobilized by 40 years of cultural warfare which pulled this sector to the right. That this is the case is evident in the fact that the confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh has energized the mass right as much as it has energized the mass left. There are actually millions of people out there who want to reassert patriarchal controls over women and keep African Americans from the polls and they constitute a ready constituency for Capital as an autonomous power and for its allies within the bourgeoisie anxious to begin excluding ever large elements of humanity from civil society preparatory to annihilation or at least an effective end to subsidies for those who are no longer “useful.”

One of the great tragedies of these developments is that the challenges humanity faces in the coming period actually provide very broad scope for those with authentic civilizational-conservative or perennialist/traditionalist sensibilities. Indeed, the world envisioned by the Dark Enlightenment has no place for the cultivation of human excellence, intellectual, moral and spiritual, and may have no place for humanity at all. If it has a place for God it is only a God which is built technologically at the cost of uncountably many civilizations and uncountaby many intelligent species. What the Right has done to authentically conservative political parties and cultural institutions, turning them into here vehicles for racism and misogyny and “sloughing off” the sense of responsibility for those who are weak or excluded which was always part of the conservative identity ought to fill true conservatives with rage.

We have, however, also witnessed the emergence of some new tendencies on the Left.
These can, broadly speaking, be grouped into two principal trends which overlap in practice but which ultimately carry very different civilizational agendas. There has, first of all, been resurgence of interest in what its proponents call “democratic socialism” but which is quite different from both traditional social democracy and the left-neoliberal “Third Way.” It differs from the first in that its base is not in the industrial working classes but in the proletarianized and lumpen-proletarianized intelligentsia, especially the so-called “millennial” generation, frustrated by the growing difficulty of both doing meaningful work and earning an living (and for some of them, even of earning a living). Their profound anger at the older “baby-boom” generation notwithstanding, this group faces many of the same frustrations their parents did in the 1970s and 1980s. Indeed, both the youth movement of the 1960s and the renewed activism of the millennial generation represent fundamentally movements of resistance to the proletarianization of the intelligentsia. Historical amnesia in this area, with respect both the just cause represented by student and ex-student movements and their utter inability to act effectively on their own, seems to be condemning us to repeating history, each time as an increasingly bizarre farce.

There are, however, some differences between the situation of marginalized intellectuals in the two generations. First, the emergence of a mass information and technology sector gentry and the associated “gentrification” of technologically and culturally creative districts, as well as a massive the emergence of new technologies which have become necessary for full social participation, have raised the bar regarding what constitutes a subsistence income and has made it more difficult for marginalized intellectuals to survive and do their work. Second, the process of proletarianization of the intelligentsia is far more advanced. Where 30-40 years ago marginalization meant living very simply and without a real possibility of settled family life while waiting for a tenure track academic position or for sufficient recognition to make a living as a working artist, today it is quite possible to end up homeless or simply die, most often from lack of adequate health insurance.

As a result, where the generation of 1968 and its younger siblings tended towards revolutionary spontaneity and then towards revolutionary vanguardism, the millennial generation tends towards classical maximalism: attempting to achieve in the short term by electoral means radical reforms, such as free health care and higher education, or even a minimum basic income, for which the Left has struggled in vain for generations. The reason for this is simple: they need these reforms and, unlike the other social sectors which need them even more, they are sufficiently well educated and sufficiently free from bourgeois hegemony to know it. But this does not make the demands any more realistic or timely or strategically appropriate.

What the new “democratic socialist” trend fails to understand is that while their demands are legitimate in principle, and while they will energize elements of the working classes which have been disillusioned with left neoliberalism, they will repel other sectors of the population for whom they represent a surrender to the reality of the own obsolescence or an acknowledgement that they are no “better” than those who have already been declared obsolete.

It is difficult to adjust to the fact that reforms one really does need will not be coming in one’s lifetime, and that life will always be not just difficult but increasingly impossible. But that adjustment is the precondition for developing a revolutionary/civilizational perspective which simply assumes that one’s own life, and most likely that of one’s children and children’s children, was already over long before they started, and that the only way to find meaning is consecrate oneself to a longue duree process of social transformation (and conservation) the realization of which we will not live to see.

The other trend which as emerged is essentially the descendant of the “new social movements” which emerged in the 1960s and 1970s, and which organized around ecology, gender, race, and ethnic identity. There are, however, important changes. The progress of climate change and the hardened resistance to corrective measures on the part of the Right, coupled with at least some evidence that it may already be too late to address the problem, has, to a certain extent, mainstreamed more radical forms of ecologism, many of which question the capacity of the Earth to carry anything like its current population. This tends to produce a soft apocalypticism, with more and more people looking to a transition by civilizational collapse or decadence rather than by revolution or reform. (On this distinction see Mansueto 2010).

There have, of course, been transitions by collapse (the crisis of the Late Bronze Age) and by decadence (the transition from Hellenistic Roman to European Christian civilization) and they have not always been a bad thing in retrospect. But advocating such a transition, especially when that advocacy is informed by ecologistic doctrines which could be mobilized to support massive reductions in the population of the planet is deeply problematic. .

Gender struggles have also changed. Specifically, the focus of the struggle has shifted. What was a critique of patriarchy aimed at liberating women has become largely a struggle for the free expression of diverse gender identities and sexual orientations. While a critique of rigid gender identities can contribute to the critique of patriarchy, and indeed has always been integral to the women’s movement, there is a real danger that women and the foundational role of patriarchy in the historic instrumentalization of humanity, will be lost.

While the main stream of the women’s liberation movement, focused on reproductive rights (which are the condition of the emancipation of women) and on resistance to sexual violence (which makes the formal equality women have achieved under the law and in many professions a lie) persists, the radical feminism, of the past generation, which was focused on transcending the specifically patriarchal construction of gender identity which contributes so much the current authoritarianism, has all but disappeared, giving way to focus on gender fluidity which, while certainly legitimate, does not really have the same strategic significance.

But the single most dramatic development on the left has been the effective identification of the “progressive politics” with “communities of color.” The reasons for this are fairly straightforward: police killings and mass incarceration coupled with the criminalization of migration. When the majority of so called “white” workers vote consciously to support these policies, the principal contradiction of the conjuncture falls inevitably along “the color line.” The difficulty is that this line does not represent a classic structural contradiction. There was certainly a time when the primitive accumulation of capital based on the exploitation of Asian, African, and indigenous American populations was a the major driver of the global economy and racism was both constituted by this structural dynamic and served to legitimate it. But resistance to the worst forms of oppression, such as slavery, could be effective, because the bourgeoisie could not afford to simply kill off the slave population. Contemporary racism, however, while a legacy of this earlier dynamic, no longer serves the interests of capitalist exploitation. It is, rather, more nearly a way of desensitizing the population to an agenda of the total exclusion and possible annihilation of a growing “surplus population.” Given its declining need for human labor power, Capital could easily adjust to the loss of “communities of color.” This does not mean that annihilation is an immediate aim of Capital, but it puts communities of color in a weak position strategically.

In this context there has been a tendency, rooted in the reality of what can only be regarded as an existential threat, to understand the conflict between communities of European origin and those of African, Asian, or indigenous American origin as civilizational in character, with ethnic identity often theorized (when theory is not itself dismissed as itself a “European” invention), in what amount to essentialist or semi-essentialist terms Mansueto 2016b). This essentialism is often then moderated by references to “intersectionality,” which recognize the reality of internal divisions along the lines of class and gender. But visions of a possible future for humanity are inevitably framed in identarian terms. Some of these visions are, to be sure quite beautiful and compelling, such as the Afroindigenous futurism which recently reached mainstream popular culture with the film Black Panther. But in the absence of a larger movement rooted in a universal human identity based on our creative capacity, which has been exploited and which is now being discarded by Capital, there is a grave danger of what amounts to a reinstatement of the “clash of civilizations” (really a clash of identarianisms) from the “left.” Communities of color will lose, and once they have Capital will already have annihilated the majority of humanity.

I should note at this point that while the analysis which I have elaborated was developed first and foremost with the United States in mind, the basic patterns are global in character. Russia, China, and India are all dominated by authoritarian parties which mobilize nationalist sentiments to stifle mass dissent and mobilize the population for the accumulation of Capital. In a certain sense Europe and North America are simply falling into what, as global economic polarization declines, has become a global model. Of these regimes, China is the most sophisticated and most dangerous in the long run. This is because China has both a highly trained mass intelligentsia and a vast surplus population, and because the party is developing increasingly sophisticated methods of social control, including a universal social rating system and increasingly sophisticated use of social media. Russia, in a much weaker position ecologically, demographically, economically, and geopolitically is thus more audacious externally and thuggish internally, and is leveraging what remains of the highly sophisticated intelligence apparatus and scientific-technical establishment to try to destabilize the United States and Europe. It does not have a clear path forward out of dependence on its extractive sector. India, of the three, has journeyed least down the authoritarian path, and Indian civilization, for a variety of geopolitical and ethnoreligious reasons, has historically been resistant to the formation of a strong state. But the Bharatiya Janata Party is clearly making a run of it. Dar-al-Islam, while it remains fragmented, has largely purged the democratic stirrings of earlier in this decade. And in Latin America a strong rightist trend is building as the “left” turn of the last decade collapses in its own variety of authoritarianism and corruption.


Given this situation, what are our principal tasks and how do we carry them out?

First, we must build a broad popular front against the Dark Enlightenment and the thanatic bloc it has assembled. Practically speaking this means supporting the Center Left electorally, while making cultivating among the bourgeoisie and petty bourgeoisie a correct understanding of what is at stake. Already significant sectors of the bourgeoisie seem to be searching for a humane solution to the obsolescence of human labor; they need to understand that in the long run they are in a fight for their own existence as well, as Capital realized as an autonomous power subsumed them under its annihilationist project. Within this context we can build support —and struggle pragmatically for— transitional demands such as free health care, higher education, and a minimum basic income. But we cannot make support for these demands a litmus test for collaboration. Indeed, as the stakes become clear, we will likely draw support well beyond the liberal bourgeoisie, including elements of the historic Center Right, especially those from classical liberal, traditionalist and Christian Democratic currents and their equivalents in other spiritual and religious traditions. This same emphasis on the long term agenda of the Dark Enlightenment should also help begin to neutralize its base among the working classes.

Second, we must build a base which actually unites the working classes, including the petty bourgeoisie, the proletariat and, where it still exists, the peasantry around the long range aim of decommodifying labor power and around a short range aim of gradually delinking income from work so as to free up more and more of humanity’s creative potential. It is important to understand that this will require very different approaches with each class fraction and each of many cross cutting social categories, of which gender identity/sexual orientation and ethnoreligious identity are merely the most important. This task has, in turn, both longer range strategic and shorter range operational dimensions.

At the strategic level we are, in effect, looking to build bridges between specific class, gender, and ethnic identities and the communist ideal of a society in which everyone can devote themselves to the full realization of their creative capacity, as they understand it. This last qualification is of the essence. For the intelligentsia it is obvious that our aim in life is creative self-expression through the arts, sciences, interpretive disciplines, or wisdoms. Some intellectuals live off of investment income or are able to earn a living by means of their creative activity and are thus blinded to the ways in which capitalism holds back the full development of human capacities. For those of us who have suffered significant proletarianization, the problems of capitalism are all too clear. But other social categories have found different adaptations to their specific class, ethnic, and gender situations. The traditional petty bourgeoisie, for example, retains a “small business” identity that makes it very skeptical about critiques of capitalism as well as very sensitive to what can often become ham-fisted regulation. Those who work with their hands have developed a strong identity centered around their own productivity, something that in earlier periods would have been relatively easy to mobilize in a socialist or communist direction, but when the argument for communism centers around the impending obsolescence of human labor it cannot help but seem like an attack on the dignity of communism’s historic base. Many working class women identify first and foremost as mothers, and take the suggestion that they should be creative in some other way as an insult. Those who are structurally unemployed and dependent on state assistance, similarly, can be forgiven if they are skeptical about proposals to expand income transfers to those who already have jobs, rather than putting more money where it is most needed —in their pockets. And many suffer from profound trauma caused by marginalization and criminalization and may take decades or even generations to recover their sense of their own creative potential.

There are, I would suggest, roads forward from all these positions, but they require forms of organization which are adapted to each of these groups and engagement which is not, in the first instance, primarily political. This is why engagement through religious institutions, which can play such a powerful role in shaping identities, remains so attractive, though in the current atmosphere there is less and less evidence that religious institutions actually shape beliefs and values, as opposed to people choosing religious communities which share beliefs and values they already hold. Engagement through traditional religious institutions, therefore, will need to be supplemented by the creation of new forms of spiritual community, including forms which speak to those who regard themselves as “spiritual but not religious” and those who have a fully secular identity.

Above all, it is vitally important that we not assume that the creativity of the intelligentsia is the only kind. It may come as surprise to many that Stalin, writing on The Economic Problems of the USSR in 1952 argued that the next step for his country, with basic necessities provided for, was the reduction of the work week so that people could begin sharing in the artistic, scientific, and philosophical creativity which was already being subsidized by the state. The work week was reduced but people did not flock to the museums and universities. Instead they began demanding more consumer goods and –and more vodka. Consumerism is a product of the commodification of labor and —like racism and misogyny— will likely take generations to overcome. But part of the problem was that the forms of creativity being offered were too narrow, especially in the constricted social space of the Soviet Union. Entrepreneurship, craftsmanship, community building, parenting, and simply continuing what might seem like “retro” forms of production, provided they are not profoundly harmful to society, must all be open to the people. Communism is, after all, based on an underlying confidence in the capacity of the people to invent their future. Our role is to teach and organize and cultivate virtue; the people themselves decide what to dot.

At the operational level, we need to articulate an immediate program which can speak to all of the elements we need to unite. Immediate movement to a single payer health care system does not meet this criterion. While it is almost certainly the best alternative for almost everyone, including many of the very privileged, simply nationalizing health insurance would effectively zero out a large part of the investment portfolios of academic, religious, and charitable institutions, as well as pension funds and social responsible investors, who invest in this sector because it is less socially objectionable than, say, arms dealing or tobacco. We need instead to articulate a plan, as many on the left end of the Democratic Party mainstream already have, for a gradual transition that addresses this dislocation. Similarly, free public university tuition for everyone would redistribute the costs of higher education from the relatively privileged workers who get it to the working class as a whole, without actually opening up elite universities to a larger population than they already serve. Indeed, it might seriously undercut the ability of elite universities to extract tuition payments from bourgeois and petty bourgeois families, who conclude that flagship state schools are “good enough” and thus deprive those institutions of the funds they use to provide financial aid, which often amounts to free tuition and even a full ride, to students from low income families. Free community college tuition coupled with expanded student aid and more favorable treatment of private colleges and universities with higher discount rates would, on the other hand, expand access, including access to elite schools, and drive down student debt, without any of the unintended consequences of free public higher education. Expanded housing assistance, including free, permanent basic housing suitable for homeless individuals and families and subsidies to provide guarantees against homelessness would relieve one of the greatest stressors on the working classes while making it less difficult for members of the marginalized intelligentsia to combine marginal employment with creative activity.

The really difficult challenges, however, come in how to confront racism and misogyny, which remain the principal factors pulling the working classes to the right. Here the only effective approach is likely to be long term and strategic, addressing identities at the foundational spiritual level as discussed above. It is not clear how to get “white” workers who “back the blue” and who are energized rather than appalled by the separation of families at the border to support a humane criminal justice or immigration policy. And of course misogyny has its headquarters in the very religious institutions which would otherwise represent our best hope of transforming principles and values.

There is, however, another road, distinct from but complementary to that of a state-led transition based on what amounts to a gradually increasing social wage, and one that allows us to join our strategic and our operational aims. Before capitalism, a very large part of the economy (estimates range from 10% to 40%, depending on the time and place) was controlled neither by feudal lords nor by the emerging bourgeoisie, but rather by academic, religious, and charitable institutions. These institutions were, to be sure, closely tied to the ruling classes and often —though not always— served their interests. While there was certainly considerable corruption, something which was the occasion on constant reform movements (think the Cistercians and Trappists, Dominic and Francis) these elements of the economy were, on the whole, more generously managed than those held by feudal lords and the bourgeoisie and less of the surplus was diverted to luxury consumption. What if, in addition to restoring the Commons, we were also to restore these sanctuaries, restructuring them in a way which reflected and respected the profoundly pluralistic character of our society, and treated the workers they employed as not merely or even primarily a source of labor power, but rather as full members of the community with governance rights and the right to participate in activities of their choice which cultivated their potential? There could be communities rooted in historic religious traditions, but also in secular ideologies such as liberalism, democracy, and communism. While a few might prefer the simplicity of celibacy for their core membership, at this point in history we would need many more which experiment with integrating diverse ways of organizing sexuality, including diverse gender identities and diverse sexual orientations, with a consecrated life and various forms and degrees of community. Some might, like the Benedictines, join a very simple focus on work (though by no means restricted to agriculture) with “prayer” or the pursuit of excellence in whatever religious or secular ideal they upheld. Others might be more focused on transforming the world around them. There could be differing degrees of participation, comparable to the distinction in Catholic religious orders between those who took solemn or simple vows and oblates who merely attach themselves temporarily to the service of a community, those who lived in community and those who lived in “the world,” etc.

This would accomplish a number of things. First, it would both balance the power of the state with a network of ideologically diverse communities with significant economic assets based in different sectors of the economy, and create a network of communities with the capacity, if necessary, to exercise collective self-defense against Capital as an autonomous force and the thanatic agencies it is spawning. Second, it would provide a way of engaging our diverse population in self-cultivation, including a conscious effort to combat racism and misogyny and to heal the alienation generated by the commodification of labor power in a way which speaks to their social conditions, their history, their identity and their traditions.

I have often told young people considering which college or university to attend that it is, in large part, a choice regarding what kind of person they want to become. Today this is a privilege accessible only to the bourgeoisie, the petty bourgeoisie, and the most privileged sectors of the proletariat. And for those whose calling is not in the liberal arts, the liberal professions, or the academy there is very little support for self-cultivation in service to a freely chosen spiritual or civilizational ideal. And almost everyone, even those who become academics, eventually leave the community and live without support for self-cultivation. In a future in which a restored Commons, managed by a democratic state was joined to a network of Sanctuaries, life long participation in a community which helped them cultivate excellence as they understand it —and to decide how they understand it— while not obligatory, would be open to all, with some making a permanent commitment to a particular community and living their lives within it, many more navigating between many or a few communities, charting their own path, and a few founding new communities to support their own creative contributions to the human civilizational project.

It is critical, of course, that these communities be constituted in a way which entails a complete and unconditional donation of resources which are held in what, under feudal law was called “alms,” meaning that they are inalienable, cannot be managed for profit, and that nothing beyond service to the common good as the community and its members understand that can be required in return for it. This represents a sharp rejection of the current trend in philanthropy to favor project over endowment funding, and to require close accountability for results and even a role in managing the organization. Making this turn will require igniting a new movement among the philanthropic bourgeoisie, based on helping them understand that the threat facing humanity faces them as well, and that certainly their most meaningful choice, and perhaps their safest one, is that of refuge in a community in which they become simply ordinary members.


What kind of people and what kind of organizations do we need in order to lead a strategy of this kind?

Those who are to lead this strategy, even at the beginning level, must, first of all, be liberally educated and capable of making rationally autonomous decisions regarding what they believe it means to be human, regarding the social conditions for realizing our humanity, and regarding questions of strategy, operations, and tactics.

Let me be clear: liberally educated need not mean university educated. Earlier generations of the workers movement gave birth to leaders who, generally beginning from craft or popular religious traditions, sought wisdom as vigorously as they did justice, creating a rich autodidact culture linking the popular and high traditions. This is, however, much more difficult today, largely because the artisan and peasant traditions which formed the basis of this autodidact culture have been largely destroyed by the commodification of labor power. But where popular leaders emerge with the requisite capacities, they should be respected for what they are.

Second, building on the base of this liberal education, they must cultivate a metacivilizational and even cosmohistorical perspective. The must, that is, while fully embracing and living a particular way, they must be able to act across the full range of humanity’s spiritual and civilizational traditions, with their deepest and most profound commitment being to humanity as a whole, the complex organization in the universe, and to the power of Being as such.

Third, they must cultivate an unusually broad range of skills, including the capacity teach, toorganize, and cultivate human excellence. At the more advanced levels they must demonstrate real innovation in these areas. While there is certainly some room for specialization, what need above all are comprehensivists who can identify, cultivate, and mentor emerging, established and high level leaders across multiple sectors of society and multiple traditions. This requires not only an organizer’s ability to identify potential leaders and build relationships, but the theoretical depth to engage them around fundamental questions and to help them develop, and where necessary to challenge, their perspectives. It also requires the ability to mentor them spiritually, if not in their own way then at least in their engagement of a civilizationary-revolutionary process and a spiritual project which transcends any particular way and which has its own distinct spiritual requirements.

Finally, they must make a solemn commitment to achieve moral and spiritual as well as intellectual excellence, as they understand it and engage in practices which promote this excellence.

The kind of organization which we need is above all one which can attract, challenge, nurture, and make effective use of people like those we have described. It must be political and spiritual at the same time and should integrate within itself the principal features of a revolutionary cadre organization and a religious order, but with much more respect for the autonomy of its members and much more emphasis on supporting them in their work. Indeed, such an organization might well be more effective if the leadership core, rather than attempting to persuade people to unite around a common strategy instead engaged cadre on voluntary basis in missions and operations they believed in and for which they were well adapted, rather in the way an intelligence service assigns missions to its case officers, though again with more respect of their autonomy. The vast majority of these “missions,” to be sure, would initially be simply identifying, engaging, and cultivating potential leaders, something which would presumably be uncontroversial by anyone attracted to the enterprise to begin with. But as differences arise, there is no reason to stamp them out. The point is not to have a single center which pretends to be right all the time, but rather effective centers which continue to learn and grow.

This organization (or these organizations) would differ from the sanctuaries in which the people take refuge primarily in that rather than rooting themselves in a single spiritual or civilizational tradition, they would operate across traditions and, while recognizing the contributions of each, would serve the higher good of humanity’s spiritual and civilizational progress as a whole. As with the particular sanctuaries, individuals could participate in different degrees in their work, their internal governance, and their community life. They would, in other words, without pretending to “organize and direct” the historical process, take responsibility for guiding, as best they can, the next steps in the human civilizational project.

It is this dedication to the longue duree development of the human civilizational project, whether that development requires the conservation of perennial wisdom and perennial values, the revolutionary transformation of ideals and institutions, or both, which is the mark of a true revolutionary. And we have no greater need in the present period than leaders who at least aspire to this calling.


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Just How Deep Is the State, After All?

The concept of the “deep state” has, since the 2016 US General Election, become one of the principal pivot points of political discourse in the United States. For the Right, it has become a a principal political target encompassing the whole complex of institutions, but especially the the intelligence community, the foreign service, the regulatory or rule making bureaucracy, and for many, the judiciary which, relatively independent of the elected “government of the day”, defends and advances the liberal order. For the alt-Right and more specifically the Dark Enlightenment the “deep state” is, in effect, the political arm of what they call the “Cathedral,” the network of liberal cultural institutions (the academy, especially as the heir of liberal Christianity, and the mass media) and their associated civil society “action arms” which together enforce humanistic norms and hold back the triumph of the the technocapitalist elites or their transhuman succssors.

The Left, meanwhile, usually frustrated by the glacial pace at which the institutions which constitute the supposed Deep State have responded demands for democratic self-determination and liberation from subjection to market forces, now wonders where the Deep State is in our moment of need. Surely there must be someone minding the store …

The term “Deep State” itself originally emerged to describe the “permanent” state structures of developing countries where democratic institutions are weak. Its use was then extended the United States as an amplification of Eisenhower’s idea of the “military industrial complex,” now fleshed out to include elements outside the national security establishment, But the idea itself is very old, though it has been more an aspiration than a term of analysis. Think of Plato’s Nocturnal Council, his “next best” solution to the problem of justice given the difficulty in actually making philosophers kings. Or think of the sages who have advised Chinese emperors for millennia, or of the whole phenomenon of the Brahmanas who make kings and largely rule on their behalf. Monasteries and religious orders have often at least tried to function in a similar capacity.

In its modern form the idea of a deep state is deeply bound up with both absolutism and parliamentarianism. Kings convened star chambers and privy councils to that they could act behind the back of parliament; parliamentarians formed secret societies so that they could conspire against kings. Hegel sought to institutionalize the phenomenon in his “universal class” of bureaucratic intellectuals. Lenin’s vanguard party is, in effect, the aspiration for a deep state wholly devoted to the Common Good which can penetrate or seize control of the nominal state and wield it as an instrument of revolution.

So the idea of a deep state is not just a fantasy of 4chan conspiracy theorists –or, for that matter– of a weak Left hoping someone will rescue us from our current difficulties without requiring any sacrifice on our part. It has a long history as both an analytic category and aspiration of the most advanced elements of the intelligentsia across multiple strands of the human civilizational project.

The question, though, is whether or not anything meeting the description of a “Deep State” actually exists or even can exist and, if it does, what —if anything— it is doing.


At one level the existence of a something like a Deep State is obvious. Of course there is a system of institutions which runs deeper and lasts longer than the government of the day. And of course this includes, at least in common law countries, the judiciary, the independence from electoral oversight of which is fundamental to our Constitution. And of course it includes the intelligence community, which could not do its job without being relatively independent and without becoming a significant power in its own right. Of course there is a vast cadre of career bureaucrats who, in virtue of their social location, have a vested interest in the regulatory and rule making state from which they derive their livelihood. And of course these elements are, in turn, connected to like minded elements in the business community, the academy, civil society, the mass media and the religious institutions. The only real qualification which we need to add is that this State, while “deep” in the sense of actually encompassing a significant sector of our society, is hardly secret or hidden. It is, on the contrary, the product of both intentional, public, legal acts and the operation of well established sociological process. No complex society could not do without a network of such institutions.

Indeed, what we have just described is, in fact, simply the State pure and simple, without any qualification.

This is a concept to which US political discourse, with its naive and shallow but also obsessive devotion to what it calls “democracy” has been singularly allergic. It is certainly possible to have an elected government. But the idea that such a government can then fully control the state apparatus and thus render it democratic is sociologically naive. This is, indeed, precisely the illusion of democracy generally, and social democracy in particular (though Leninism, which imagines that the state can be similarly controlled by a “vanguard party” is also an illusion). The term “state,” in fact, derives from the Latin status rei publicae, the state of public affairs, and has always referred to something deeper, broader, and affected by but never wholly dependent on the actions of the government. In the Middle Ages it came to include of those elements of society which had representation in public councils —the Estates General or the Estates of the Realm— because they were understood to have an inescapable role in affecting public affairs. The King had to consult them because of their autonomous power as actors in the public arena. The state, far from being either an absolutist moi or a democratic nous, is complex, heterogenous, and more a structure than a thing.

The emergence of sovereign nation states which exercise effective command and control over all aspects of life for a territory and its people (as opposed to just military control and the ability to extract tribute, like most pre-capitalist Empires) has led us to forget the true nature of the state and has made “state power” the principal strategic aim of reactionary and revolutionary parties alike, which imagined that they could use the state like a neutral took to carry out their programs. Lenin knew better when, in State and Revolution, he argued that the bourgeois state and would have to yield to new forms of organization, but then ignored his own insights and attempted to use the state as if it were a neutral instrument which could just as well dismantle capitalism as administer it.


This said, there are very serious problems with the idea that the Deep State constitutes a compact, cohesive network which is capable of disciplined, focused collective action over a sustained period of time. It turns out that such cohesion is very difficult to create and sustain –and that it has likely become much more difficult in recent years.

Now there are two principal ways in which the larger group on behalf of which any hypothetical Deep State has been defined. For the Left, the definition is economic. The Deep State, if it exists, is an agency the bourgeoisie. For the Right the definition is cultural. The Deep State is an agency of the “Cathedral.” Let us look at the possibility of Deep State-like networks defined in each of these two ways.

The most developed theory of the ruling class is that advanced by Marx. For Marx, class is determined by relationship to the means of production. Those with enough capital to live off the labor of others –and to pass on to their children the capacity to do so– constitute the bourgeoisie. Those with the capital to work for themselves, but who must still work, constitute the petty bourgeoisie. Those who must sell their labor power in order to survive, no matter how well compensated they may be, constitute the proletariat. But if we are to understand the bourgeoisie as a ruling class (and the petty bourgeoisie and proletariat as potential or aspiring ruling classes) we must consider social and cultural as well as financial capital. Members of the bourgeoisie, in other words, must have the capital required to generate an income that allows them to live comfortably or even luxuriously without working; they must also be able to fund at least a modest presence in and support for civic, political and cultural networks and both have and be able to pass on to their children the kind of education which makes possible broad civilizational leadership.

How much financial capital does this take? Assuming even modest luxury for a family of four requires something like an annual income of $150,000. But we should then add $65,000 annually for private school or university tuition and fees for each of two children and, say, an additional 50,000 to support participation in elite social and cultural activities and to support even modest political and charitable contributions. This comes to an annual income of roughly $330,000. Assuming a very conservative investment strategy designed to conserve capital and thus a modest annual rate of return of 4%, generating an income at this level without working requires capital of $8.25 million. Only about 1.5% of the population has wealth on this scale, or some 625,000 households.

But this is far too large a population across which to create a compact, connected network of the kind necessary to constitute a Deep State. And this is true even if you assume that only a relatively small section of this bourgeoisie constitutes the active as opposed to the sponsoring deep state. This is because there are far too many people with the assets necessary to endow autonomous political and cultural activity for them to be linked in a single even moderately cohesive network. There will always be someone with a different vision and the money to act effectively on that vision –which is precisely what we have seen over the course of recent decades with the rise of rogue, most but not exclusively, right wing funders like the Koch Brothers.

And this is only the beginning. Any subset of the bourgeoisie which attempted to form a cohesive network would be subject to enormous pressures to include members of other networks, whether bourgeois, upper petty bourgeois, or historically excluded to such a degree that the cohesion of their network would be irreparably damaged. Any such networks, in order to effective, are likely to be temporary, local (either geographically or by social sector) and quite limited in their aims.

In this sense, the idea that the bourgeoisie constitutes a “ruling class” which must be “overthrown” is not strictly consistent with historical materialism, however much it was taken for granted by Marx and his successors. Communism, as informed by historical materialist analysis, is an attempt to transform structures and (in the context of my generalization of the theory as a dialectical sociology) ideals. If there is a target it is Capital, which is emerging as an autonomous power which even the bourgeoisie cannot control.

But what about the possibility of a Deep State constituted on a basis other than class, i.e. a Deep State which is is the instrument of what the Dark Enlightenment calls the Cathedral? This is, in fact, even more preposterous than a Deep State constituted by class. It is, of course, possible to simply group together everyone who disagrees with you and trace out a few loose historical connections between them, but that hardly demonstrates the existence of a cohesive network. Indeed, the idea that liberal, democratic, and socialist humanism are simply secular derivatives of Christianity is simply an old Nietzschean trope and whatever truth it may have has never prevented the various members of this supposed Cathedral from making war on each other. Indeed, look at the sharp contradictions within the Democratic Party at precisely the moment when, were there a true Deep State, one would think unity would be most rigorously enforced.

But what if we move away from the ideological orientation of the supposed Cathedral and define it instead as a network defined by shared social and cultural capital? Once again, there are senses in which it is more or less obvious that elite networks constituted by social and cultural capital and which have a powerful presence in political and cultural institutions do in fact exist. At the same time, these elites have changed in significantly in composition over the past 50 years. Access to elite universities and elite careers such as the academy, diplomacy, the officer corps, and the intelligence community have opened up enormously since the Second World War. And they have done so, in significant measure, with the support of the old elites which historically staffed them. Capital is by nature global and cosmopolitan and seeks out the best talent available. But something significant is lost as a result of this democratization. When all of the members of the diplomatic corps or the intelligence community, for example, came from a small network of families which all knew each other, trust was easy to come by. Select someone from your own network who is reasonably trustworthy and there is a good chance that you will be able trust them. If they stray too far they will have to deal with something far more effective than legal sanctions: the wrath of the family on which their endowments depend. Select people from another ethnoreligious community entirely who takes their recruitment as proof that the system really is as open and democratic as it pretends to be and chances are that first time you have to ask them to do something … deep statist … and at least one of them is going to bolt. And one is all it takes. And of course they will begin to take members of the old elite with them. So even if you have a strong elite network and it has significant power there are real constraints. Even elite networks can’t do just anything they want. And especially if you are going to do something difficult and controversial, it is best to stay as close to legal norms as possible, even if it takes much longer.

Indeed, one of the principal conclusions suggested by this analysis is that the defining feature of the present period is not so much the concentration of wealth and power, but rather its dispersal. This might seem counterintuitive given the solid evidence that at least in the US inequality has been increasing, but in fact these are two distinct questions and the trends may even be related. “Dispersal of wealth and power” in this context means simply an increase in the number of people who have sufficient wealth to free them up to devoted themselves significantly to political and cultural activity and who have the resources to employ others —or technology— in service to their agenda.


All of which brings us to the current situation. Are there networks, almost certainly defined by their relationship to capital, financial, social, and cultural, working to defend the liberal order against a very serious assault? Absolutely. Are they powerful? Let’s hope so. But the idea that they either constitute a compact power unto themselves or that they are the instruments of some even more powerful hidden force is not only unfounded; it is preposterous.

What are the strategic implications of this analysis?

First, it is in our interest to support the the liberal resistance to Trump as vigorously as we can, while preparing for what we will do if it fails. We should support the liberal resistance because the liberal order creates for us the best realistically possible terrain on which to organize for a future, possibly even with the support of elements within the bourgeoisie, who recognize the danger presented by the emergence of Capital as an autonomous power and the challenges presented by climate change, the technological obsolescence of much human labor power, the limitations of the nation state in a global ecology and economy, and the emptiness of the consumer society. We need to be prepared for its possible failure precisely because the liberal order has already been severely damaged, especially along the dimensions of respect for the rule of law and the integrity of the (non-market) institutions which are the condition for the principled, virtuous exercise of freedom.

Second, our principal tasks, whether the liberal resistance is sucessful or not, remain the same: cultivating a new civilizational ideal centered on the full development of human capacities which we can counter pose to the technocratic secularism which is the organic ideology of Capital as an autonomous power and creating the ecological, technological, economic, political and and cultural conditions for the realization of that ideal. And this means longue duree, civilizational and Institutional organizing: identifying, cultivating, mentoring, and deploying high value civilizational leaders and building, conserving, and transforming institutions. But more on that in my next post …

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The Problem of Communism, the Contradictions of Historical Materialism, and the Contributions of the Frankfort School

Humanity seems, once again, poised to turn the gate of hope into a valley of despair. The material conditions for a genuinely human life, in which all of humanity is gradually freed by technological progress from the burden of the necessary labor of merely reproducing social life, and set free to create and explore, have at long last begun to mature. And it is just precisely at this moment that the people seem most ready to sacrifice everything, including their hard won freedom, and the capacity for democratic, collective self-determination, for the opportunity to sell their labor power, fueling support for the Dark Enlightenment and its paradoxically populist ethnonationalist/social/religiousconservative base, making a fascist resurgence a clear and present danger.

It would be easy to write off this phenomenon as driven by economic necessity. We have driven down the demand for human labor power, but have not found a way to share the wealth created by industrial and information technology. Perhaps it is must a matter of redistribution? This is clearly the answer of the new populist left, represented by parties and movements such as Podemos, Syrizia, La France Insoumise, Our Revolution, and, to the extent that it can still be regarded as having a significant “left” membership, the Italian Cinque Stelle.

But history suggests that the problem is not so simple. Rising standards of living for the people, whether the product of social liberal or social democratic reforms or socialist revolution have not, by and large, led to demands for the decommodification of labor power, but simply to increased levels of consumption or when, as in the Soviet Union, investment was directed towards continued civilizational progress rather than individual consumption, stagnating productivity and rising absenteeism.

There is, in fact a well defined body of theory addressing this problem. Indeed, it is the problem of communist theory, and bears on both political strategy and on what has historically been called “socialist construction,” the process of creating, under communist leadership, the conditions for the decommodification of labor power.

This paper will analyze in some depth the development of this debate, beginning with Marx, looking at social democratic and communist contributions, and concluding with a look at arguments within the Frankfurt School, for which this was, in a sense, the fundamental question. I will conclude by arguing that the failure of the communist movement to find a way forward notwithstanding, decommodification is in fact possible. I will conclude by looking briefly at how we need to proceed in this regard.

What is Communism?

It is important, to begin with, to acknowledge a fundamental ambiguity within the socialist and communist movement regarding its ultimate aim. There is, on the one hand, a very strong trend running through both social democratic and communist theory which understands socialism as first and foremost a way of resolving the economic contradictions of capitalism in order to unleash the development of the productive forces –what Samir Amin calls the “economistic” reading of Marxism and what Maoism called the “theory of the productive forces” (Amin 1978/2010, 1979/1980, 1988/1989). This emphasis on the development of the productive forces has some basis in Marx’s work.

…it is only possible to achieve real liberation in the real world… by employing real means… slavery cannot be abolished without the steam-engine and the mule and spinning-jenny, serfdom cannot be abolished without improved agriculture, and… in general, people cannot be liberated as long as they are unable to obtain food and drink, housing and clothing in adequate quality and quantity. “Liberation” is a historical and not a mental act, and it is brought about by historical conditions, the development of industry, commerce, agriculture, the conditions of intercourse (Marx 1846/1932)

The task of developing the productive forces is, furthermore, not unrelated to the humanistic and emancipatory aims of communism. On the contrary, the argument runs, we must transcend scarcity if we are to decommodify labor power and set humanity free from necessary labor (production of the means of subsistence) and exploitation (the creation of the surplus which supports the unproductive luxury consumption of the ruling classes) and allow human creativity to flourish. In practice, however, this communist “parousia” has been repeatedly postponed and actually existing socialism has focused, with only few exceptions (themselves very problematic, for reasons we will come to understand) on promoting scientific, technological, and economic. progress. Give the trajectory of both the Soviet Union and China there is a very strong case to be made that historic socialism, far from being a transition to communism, is actually a strategy for capitalist development in countries on the periphery of the capitalist world system, which lack external colonial empires to exploit and which must therefore use a strong state to carry out primitive accumulation through forced collectivization which maintaining sufficient support among the people to ensure political stability.

There are, however, other texts in which Marx seems to argue that simply resolving the internal contradictions of capitalism by the nationalization of industry and unleashing the development of the productive forces, is at best a very ambiguous first step towards communism.As Marx makes clear in his manuscript on Private Property and Communism the abolition of private property is,

in its first form only a generalisation and consummation of it [of this relation]. As such it appears in a two-fold form: on the one hand, the dominion of material property bulks so large that it wants to destroy everything which is not capable of being possessed by all as private property. It wants to disregard talent, etc., in an arbitrary manner. For it the sole purpose of life and existence is direct, physical possession. The category of the worker is not done away with, but extended to all men (Marx 1844/2009).

This does, indeed, look like a rather sharp indictment of historic socialism, in which the proletarian condition became essentially universal while inequality, while restricted, was far from being abolished.

On the contrary, whatever Marx said or believed about the material (technological) conditions for communism, he is quite clear that communism itself consists in the decommodification of labor power. In order to understand why this condition is so essential, we need to situate it in the context of Marx’s larger analysis which, we must remember, is a critique not just of political economy but of “religion” and of philosophy which claimed to have grasped religion’s inner, rational truth (as well as of the French democratic and socialist revolutionary experience, cf Lenin 1913/2008). And while the Marxist critique of philosophy is usually understood as a critique specifically of Hegel, there is good reason to trace the roots of the tradition which Marx critically engages back to Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, and especially to the medieval Jewish, Christian, and Muslim commentators on Aristotle, a connection which drew the focused attention of a handful of Soviet scholars in the late 1950s and early 1960s (Dahm 1987:94).

I have traced out the lineage which leads from the Radical Aristotelians of medieval Europe, through Gersonides and Spinoza, up through Kant, Hegel, and Marx in other contexts (Mansueto 2010b). Here I just summarize. According to Aristotle, the aim of human life was the cultivation of intellectual and moral virtue. This was theorized by the Jewish and Muslim commentators of the middle ages as achieving identity with the Agent Intellect, the collective intelligence which governs earth and the entire sublunar sphere, something which was increasingly understood by later Averroists such as Dante Alighieri and Marsiglio of Padua as involving a collective, historical dimension. We achieve identity with Agent Intellect through civilizational progress.

Christianity, however, suggested a further possibility: actual theosis, or identity with God. This was, to be sure, understood by the Church as the product of grace, which created capacities which transcend those natural to humanity, and was understood as an accidental perfection rather than a substantial transformation. In effect, by coming, with the help of grace, to love God for God’s own sake and with God’s own love, humanity became connatural with God, a state known as caritative wisdom (Mansueto 2010b), so that in the late middle ages the tension was between the Radical Aristotelians, who sought identity with the Agent Intellect through the human cultivation of virtue and through inner worldly civilizational progress, the Thomistic Center which affirmed the value of this project, but stressed that it was subordinated to the higher goal of full theosis which was possible only through grace and caritative wisdom, and the Augustinian “right” which stressed the priority of faith and of submission to the divine will (this latter tradition leading eventually, by way of Scotus and Occam into the Reformation) . But somewhere between the Latin Averroists and Spinoza the distinction between identity with the Agent Intellect and full theosis dropped away, and we begin to see the emergence of an ideal centered on full theosis by means of innerworldly civilizational progress. This ideal is most clearly stated by Hegel.

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. 1830/1971 3: 552).

This divine spirit is ultimately embodied, for Hegel, in a state which integrates liberal, democratic, feudal, and monarchic elements (with the church, since the divine has fully interpenetrated the secular, now an arm of the state) with a hidden architectonic cadre in the “universal class” of civil servants of which the university based sapiential intelligentsia is the core.

When Marx, following Feuerbach, takes the criticism of religion as “the beginning of all criticism” he is, in fact, embracing this aim of theosis, and making an argument regarding the conditions for its realization. Transcending religion is a first step, but only a first step. If the divine spirit can be realized in the secular order then there is no longer a need for religion as a separate institution. This is not because the aims of religion are wrong, but because religion seeks to realize these aims in the wrong place and in the wrong way.

Religion is the fantastic realization of a human essence that has yet to attain its true realization.

Man, who sought a superhuman being in the fantastic reality of heaven and found nothing there but a reflection of himself, will no longer be inclined to find a mere nonhuman semblance of himself where he seeks and must seek his true reality.

But Marx goes one step further. While for Hegel it is enough for “the divine spirit to interpenetrate the entire secular world, wherein it becomes conscious of itself,” in the state, for Marx

The task of history is thus to establish the truth about this world once the otherworld has proved illusory. The immediate task of philosophy, which is in the service of history, is to unmask human self-alienation in its secular forms now that it has been unmasked in its sacred forms. Thus the critique of heaven is transformed into a critique of earth, the critique of religion into the critique of law, and the critique of theology into the critique of politics. (Marx 1843/2009)

More specifically, for Marx, it is necessary to transcend the alienation of the specific capacity which links the human essence to the divine, i.e. to Being as such: our labor power. And this alienation is a result of the commodification of labor power, or the wage relation

This fact expresses merely that the object which labor produces – labor’s product – confronts it as something alien, as a power independent of the producer. The product of labor is labor which has been embodied in an object, which has become material: it is the objectification of labor. Labor’s realization is its objectification. Under these economic conditions this realization of labor appears as loss of realization for the workers; objectification as loss of the object and bondage to it; appropriation as estrangement, as alienation. (Marx 1844/2009)
Transcending this alienation results in nothing less than the effective deification of humanity.

Communism as the positive transcendence of private property as human self-estrangement, and therefore as the real appropriation of the human essence by and for man; communism therefore as the complete return of man to himself as a social (i.e., human) being – a return accomplished consciously and embracing the entire wealth of previous development. This communism, as fully developed naturalism, equals humanism, and as fully developed humanism equals naturalism; it is the genuine resolution of the conflict between man and nature and between man and man – the true resolution of the strife between existence and essence, between objectification and self-confirmation, between freedom and necessity, between the individual and the species. Communism is the riddle of history solved, and it knows itself to be this solution. (Marx 1844/2009)

Humanity’s essence is, in other words, nothing less than existence, or Being as Such: what the dialectical tradition has understood historically to be God. Religion seeks the realization of this essence beyond history, in a mystical union with the divine. Philosophy, by which Marx means the tradition of Radical Aristotelianism which reaches from the Latin Averroists through Spinoza and Hegel, up to his own work, teaches us to seek it in this world. Liberal philosophy sought deification in the rationally autonomous individual. Democratic philosophy sought deification in the democratic state. Communism seeks it in human creativity itself, liberated from the chains of commodification.
How do we get there?

But if Marx is clear that communism consists not in collectivization of the means of production in order to unleash the development of the productive forces, but rather in the decommodification of labor power, he is much less clear on how we get there. Marx, to be sure, wanted to distinguish his communism from that of the utopians who developed complex schemes with little regard for social conditions. A scientific socialism, he believed, had to be rooted in the material conditions of social life. But while Marx discovered contradictions within capitalism which would –or at least could– lead to socialism, he never succeeded in identifying conditions which would lead from socialism to communism, or even sustain a strong mass base for the decommodification of labor power.

This is apparent from a reading of the first section of the Communist Manifesto, where Marx makes his first attempt at analyzing the contradictions of capitalism and at identifying the stages in the development of the class struggle.

A similar movement is going on before our own eyes. Modern bourgeois society, with its relations of production, of exchange and of property, a society that has conjured up such gigantic means of production and of exchange, is like the sorcerer who is no longer able to control the powers of the nether world whom he has called up by his spells. … It is enough to mention the commercial crises that by their periodical return put the existence of the entire bourgeois society on its trial, each time more threateningly. In these crises, a great part not only of the existing products, but also of the previously created productive forces, are periodically destroyed. … The productive forces at the disposal of society no longer tend to further the development of the conditions of bourgeois property; on the contrary, they have become too powerful for these conditions, by which they are fettered, and so soon as they overcome these fetters, they bring disorder into the whole of bourgeois society, endanger the existence of bourgeois property … (Marx 1848/2000)

As a result of these contradictions, the proletariat begins to organize:

The proletariat goes through various stages of development …

These stages are, according to Marx, 1) sabotage, with the rage of workers directed against the machines which are replacing them rather than Capital which owns the machines; 2) trade unionism, organized collective bargaining for improved wages and working conditions, and finally, 3) the formation of a workers party which vies for political power.

Even so, Marx is clear that this is not enough. Workers will not by themselves come to understand the need to transcend the commodification of labor power. Thus the need for philosophy.

As philosophy finds its material weapon in the proletariat, so the proletariat finds its spiritual weapon in philosophy … The liberation of Germany will be the liberation of man. The head of this liberation is philosophy, its heart is the proletariat. Philosophy cannot be realized without abolishing the proletariat, and the proletariat cannot be abolished without realizing philosophy. (Marx 1843/2009)

What this means concretely is the creation of an intellectual vanguard.

Finally, in times when the class struggle nears the decisive hour, the progress of dissolution going on within the ruling class, in fact within the whole range of old society, assumes such a violent, glaring character, that a small section of the ruling class cuts itself adrift, and joins the revolutionary class, the class that holds the future in its hands. Just as, therefore, at an earlier period, a section of the nobility went over to the bourgeoisie, so now a portion of the bourgeoisie goes over to the proletariat, and in particular, a portion of the bourgeois ideologists, who have raised themselves to the level of comprehending theoretically the historical movement as a whole …

The Communists … have over the great mass of the proletariat the advantage of clearly understanding the line of march, the conditions, and the ultimate general results of the proletarian movement (Marx 1848/2000)

This, despite various comments on specific political programs at specific historic junctures, is very much where Marx leaves us in terms of a general theory of a transition. He does not explain how we go from the formation of a philosophical vanguard to the decommodification of labor power. That task was left to later commentators.
Historic Socialism

Given the ambiguity in his own work, it should come as no surprise that Marx’s interpreters are sharply divided along two lines of demarcation. Some emphasize the economic, some the political, and some the ideological, cultural, and spiritual conditions for communism, both in building a movement towards socialism and in the process of socialist construction. And among each of these groups some argue that the conditions for creation of a mass socialist movement will develop spontaneously; others emphasize need for conscious leadership.

Thus economistic social democrats (who largely reject the idea of a philosophical vanguard) such as Engels and Kautsky argue that industrialization itself will create a proletarian majority that will then win elections. The resulting social democratic government will then nationalize industry, eliminating the contradictions of capitalism and setting in motion rapid economic development, presumably resulting in an end to scarcity and thus the material conditions for communism. More idealistic social democrats such as Hermann Cohen and Eduard Bernstein, while not discounting economic factors, see socialism as in significant measure the product of a gradual Enlightenment in the Kantian sense.

Similarly, among communists (those who argue for the necessity of an intellectual vanguard), including all who followed Lenin into the Bolshevik faction and those who see Lenin as part of their theoretical heritage, it is possible to identify:

  • those who argue that the basis for socialist revolution lies in the fact that imperialism, while it does not make capitalist development impossible, vastly retards it, creating an opening for a vanguard of professional revolutionaries to seize power by advancing “transitional demands” such as “land, bread, and peace” or national liberation and land reform and
  • those who, following Bodganov, Gorky, and Lunarcharsky (the so-called god-builders; cf Rowley 1978)) understood “conscious leadership” primarily in ideological terms, running what amounted to liberal arts programs for workers at Gorky’s home in Capri, so that an ever larger fraction of the proletariat would come to share the humanistic intelligentsia’s understanding of the “line of march, conditions, and ultimately general result” of the revolutionary project.

But Communists then divided over what to do “after the revolution.”

  • Trotskyists argued that the revolution is permanent and global. After seizing power the party should implement a strategy of primitive socialist accumulation and forced collectivization (even militarization) in order to position technologically, economically, and militarily itself to spread the revolution globally.
  • Stalinists ultimately accepted the theory of primitive socialist accumulation and forced collectivization, but largely because of the need to prepare for war against Germany, arguing that “socialism in one country” was, in fact, both possible and necessary.
  • Bukharin, on the other hand, defended rural demand led strategy in which land reform created peasant demand for manufactured goods, catalyzing industrialization. But Bukharin, who had been close to Bogdanov and the “god-builders” before the revolution, was also keenly aware of cultural and spiritual conditions for communism, and wrote both about the way in which the crisis of capitalism was eroding the ideological basis for socialist revolution and the ways in which Stalin’s strategy of primitive socialist accumulation deformed the party spiritually.

It was out of the Bukharinist “right opposition” that the two great theorists of the cultural conditions for communism emerged. Antonio Gramsci (Gramsci 1948, 1949a, 1949b, 1949c, 1950, 1951, 1954, 1966) developed a complex analysis of the cultural dimensions of class struggle, arguing that successful ruling classes ruled not by coercion (“dictatorship”) or co-optation (“transformism”) but rather by cultural hegemony –by rewriting the cultural rules of the game and by drawing on popular ideological, cultural, and religious traditions as transitional or “linking ideologies” which build support for socialism among those who had not yet achieved a fully dialectical perspective. Mao, on the other hand, focused on the fact that the persistence of commodity relations under socialism reproduced the bourgeoisie economically, politically, and ideologically, and argued for the necessity of “cultural revolution,” which consisted largely in a combination of study with “struggle sessions” and public self-criticism in which cadre were challenged to confess, analyze, and correct their own “petty bourgeois tendencies.”

Rather outside of the stream of “official” historical materialism, but also quite influential, lies “populism,” not in the sense of the amorphous global anti-elitism which has emerged in recent decades on both the right and the left, in many ways recapitulating the broader political culture out of which fascism emerged, but rather the nineteenth and early twentieth century movement which looked not to the industrial proletariat but rather to the peasantry as the leading revolutionary class. These narodniki, as they were called in Russia, argued that capitalist development was impossible in colonial or semicolonial countries, because of the lack of an internal market for manufactured goods (a thesis largely seconded in the later twentieth century by dependency theory) but that the peasant community, with its tradition of redistributional land tenure, created a basis in experience for the transition to socialism. The resulting movements, as Eric Wolf demonstrated in Peasant Movements of the Twentieth Century (Wolf 1969) often drew on religious language and symbolism to articulate their aims. The strategic power of these movements gradually forced the communist movement to reassess the role of both the peasantry and of religion, so that by the second half of the twentieth century significant trends within the communist movement, both on the Gramscian “right” and the Maoist “left” increasingly accepted the peasantry as an equal partner with with the proletariat in the revolutionary process and understood popular religion as at the very least a “bridging ideology” leading (Lancaster 1988) to dialectical and historical materialism or even, increasingly, as integral to the revolutionary project itself (Mansueto 2002a).

This is, in many ways, a very rich tradition of engagement with the problems posed by communist strategy but the very problem it aims to resolve: the alienation, generated by the commodification of labor power, which makes the achievement of communist consciousness difficult at best. But there are some very serious limitations. First, the “solution” to this problem has generally been to draw on the support of those whose labor power, like that of peasants and intellectuals, is not yet fully commodified. No significant trend within the movement ever advanced a strategy for cultivating communist consciousness among full proletarianized workers, wither agrarian, industrial, or intellectual. And even the most advanced attempts to draw on these less commodified and alienated sectors of society as revolutionary base produced limited success at best. While the Latin American Left has proven itself far more resilient than many expected after its decline in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union, they have fall far short of creating the “spiritual conditinos for communism.” Those of us who hoped that the synthesis between dependency theory, Gramscian (or Mariateguista) communism and liberation theology which drove the Latin American Left of the 1970s and 1980s would usher in the New Humanity have, instead, been treated to, among other things, the spectacle of Daniel Ortega parading around in designer glasses imposing classic neoliberal austerity measures on the people who brought him to power.

Second, only one of trend within the communist movement (Maoism) engages directly the impact of the persistence of commodity production after the revolution. And the Maoist approach, reflected in the Cultural Revolution, was more a strategy for containing the effects of commodification (with rather catastrophic collateral damage) rather than for overcoming it. The idea that study (actually the rote memorization of slogans) and struggle (often abusive criticism and self-criticism sessions practiced under less than consensual conditions) could heal the wounds of commodification and cultivate high order intellectual and moral capacities is simply preposterous.

The Hotel Abyss … and Beyond?

Long before the global failure of historic socialism to address the implications of the commodification of labor power for both revolutionary strategy and socialist construction was fully apparent, though, a major school of revolutionary theorists –the Frankfurt School– analyze the problem and its implications thoroughly. Emerging out of the effort to understand why so many workers lent their support to fascism, the school focused its attention on the the complex forms of ideological and cultural domination which characterize capitalist society. The result was not just one but a number of competing theories of the “authoritarian personality” (Fromm 1941, Adorno 1950) which argued that the socialization necessary for survival in a capitalist society produces a working class which is not so much revolutionary as authoritarian. After the war, Erich Fromm went further to argue that even when authoritarian parenting gives way to more permissive models, people in capitalist societies are raised to sell themselves, cultivating a “marketing orientation” in which people quite literally lose themselves and their connection to their underlying creative, social, and sapiential drives (Fromm 1947). Herbert Marcuse (Marcuse 1964) developed a similar argument showing that the ideological apparatus of consumer societies effectively integrated the working classes into the capitalist order, so that it was only the marginalized –ethnic minorities and the humanistic intelligentsia– which were likely to resist.

In the end, however, the Frankfurt School divided sharply, with the majority arriving ultimately at the conclusion that revolution, at least in the sense that Marx had understood, was in fact impossible. Adorno and Horkheimer’s Dialectic of Enlightenment (Adorno and Horkheimer 1944/2002), Adorno’s Minima Moralia (Adorno 1951/2002), and ultimately Marcuse’s One Dimensional Man (Marcuse 1964) refocused the object of criticism from the commodification of labor power to instrumental rationality and technopolitical domination, reflecting an orientation which was as much Heideggerian as it was Marxist, even if Marcuse along had direct connections with Heidegger.

We will explore in another context the social basis and political valence of the apostasy of the humanistic intelligentsia (and much of the religious intelligentsia), even that nominally on the “left” from Marx to Heidegger. For here it is enough to remind readers that Heidegger was a committed NAZI and that his philosophy clearly points towards fascism (Lukacs 1953/1980, Bourdieu 1988/1991, Mansueto 2010b). Of more importance for our current argument is that, whatever its relationship to Heidegger and through him to the very NAZI tradition they were born to resist, the dominant wing of the Frankfurt School ended up promoting despair. As Lukacs put it:

A considerable part of the leading German intelligentsia, including Adorno, have taken up residence in the Grand Hotel Abyss which I described in connection with my critique of Schopenhauer as “a beautiful hotel, equipped with every comfort, on the edge of an abyss, of nothingness, of absurdity. And the daily contemplation of the abyss between excellent meals or artistic entertainments, can only heighten the enjoyment of the subtle comforts offered (Lukacs 1971).

There are, however, two figures close to the Frankfurt School who avoided both refined despair: Walter Benjamin and Erich Fromm. This said they find hope in two very different places. Benjamin effectively rejects the whole project of a scientific socialism in which communism is the product of a more or less necessary process of technological and economic progress and class struggle.

Social democratic theory, and still more the praxis, was determined by a concept of progress which did not hold to reality, but had a dogmatic claim. Progress, as it was painted in the minds of the social democrats, was once upon a time the progress of humanity itself (not only that of its abilities and knowledges). It was, secondly, something unending (something corresponding to an endless perfectibility of humanity). It counted, thirdly, as something essentially unstoppable (as something self-activating, pursuing a straight or spiral path). Each of these predicates is controversial, and critique could be applied to each of them. This latter must, however, when push comes to shove, go behind all these predicates and direct itself at what they all have in common. The concept of the progress of the human race in history is not to be separated from the concept of its progression through a homogenous and empty time. The critique of the concept of this progress must ground the basis of its critique on the concept of progress itself. (Benjamin 1940/2005).

This concept of history, he suggests, is itself, fundamentally hegemonized by the principles and values of Capital itself.

The conformism which has dwelt within social democracy from the very beginning rests not merely on its political tactics, but also on its economic conceptions. It is a fundamental cause of the later collapse. There is nothing which has corrupted the German working-class so much as the opinion that they were swimming with the tide. Technical developments counted to them as the course of the stream, which they thought they were swimming in. From this, it was only a step to the illusion that the factory-labor set forth by the path of technological progress represented a political achievement. The old Protestant work ethic celebrated its resurrection among German workers in secularized form. (Benjamin 1940/2005).

But this is not all. This concept of history is not only inadequate to the task of creating the conditions for communism; it is behind the collapse of social democracy and the rise of fascism.

… the politicians in whom the opponents of Fascism had placed their hopes have been knocked supine, and have sealed their downfall by the betrayal of their own cause … (Benjamin 1940/2005).

This is due to a

:… stubborn faith in progress … in their “mass basis” … (Benjamin 1940/2005).

The struggle against fascism, he suggests, requires an entirely different forma mentis, an entirely different spirituality and above all a new concept of history which is no longer progressive but rather messianic.

History is the object of a construction whose place is formed not in homogenous and empty time, but in that which is fulfilled by the here-and-now … (Benjamin 1940/2005).

The consciousness of exploding the continuum of history is peculiar to the revolutionary classes in the moment of their action … (Benjamin 1940/2005).

Revolutionaries must

… establish a concept of the present as that of the here-and-now, in which splinters of messianic time are shot through … (Benjamin 1940/2005).

Surely the time of the soothsayers, who divined what lay hidden in the lap of the future, was experienced neither as homogenous nor as empty. Whoever keeps this in mind will perhaps have an idea of how past time was experienced as remembrance: namely, just the same way. It is well-known that the Jews were forbidden to look into the future. The Torah and the prayers instructed them, by contrast, in remembrance. This disenchanted those who fell prey to the future, who sought advice from the soothsayers. For that reason the future did not, however, turn into a homogenous and empty time for the Jews. For in it every second was the narrow gate, through which the Messiah could enter. (Benjamin 1940/2005).

It is easy to see why Benjamin would have taken this route. There was even less reason to trust the idea of progress in 1940 than there is now. He was not the only one to argue instead to that “the unity of the poor creates, in certain times and places, an eschatological power” (Silone 1968:31) which is the real foundation of revolutionary hope. But this eschatological power did not appear –and Benjamin committed suicide. It was ultimately an alliance between the progressive sectors of Capital and the Soviet State which defeated fascism, though not without help from the resistance.

The problem with this “eschatological communism” is simple. It divorces the communist project from the real lives and aspirations of the working classes, who are its subject, and makes it quite impossible to advance any kind of revolutionary strategy. It is one thing to reject a concept of history and a strategic orientation which make socialism into a strategy of primitive accumulation –something which also alienates communism from the working classes; it is quite another to to reject strategy grounded into social reality altogether. Eschatological communism channels the energy of the vast majority of its adherents, who are far from messianic themselves, into meaningless symbolic protest, while condemning its best leaders to either suicide or the cross.

Fromm (Fromm 1947) takes a different path. First he has a more complex and nuanced anthropology than Marx. He shares Marx’s view that humanity is defined by our capacity for creative labor and by our sociality, but emphasizes the latter a bit more and is clearer than Marx about our drive to seek meaning. And is clearer than Marx ever was about the underlying contradictions of the human situation. Reading the Paris Manuscripts one gets the impression that Marx actually believed that communism would put an end to all human suffering, spiritual as well as material. Fromm knew better. He was aware that our most profound suffering comes from our finitude and contingency, from the fact that we are aware of the possibility of the Infinite and of Necessary Being, but cannot achieve it. And he situates creative human labor, the formation of challenging and nurturing relationships, and the search for meaning as ways to partially come to terms with this challenge.

Second, drawing on but also radically transforming psychoanalytic theory, Fromm develops a far more nuanced theory of alienation than Marx, arguing that human creativity, sociality, and desire for meaning are channeled by the family during the course of the socialization process in a way which meets survival needs under the prevailing social conditions. This was how he explained the formation of the autohritarian personality under fascism and it is how he explains the enduring hegemony of Capital in advanced capitalist societies. Specifically, his theory of the “marketing orientation” explains the process by which, forced to sell ourselves in order to survive, human beings under capitalism actually lose touch with who they are and what they actually want.

Third, while he does not fully develop this aspect of his theory, Fromm leaves us with a way to theorize the social basis for communism even when we cannot “see” it with the naked eye. That basis is, precisely, humanity’s drive towards creativity, sociality, and meaning. It is something we all share, and in this sense all human beings are ordered towards communism. The principal strategic task of communism thus becomes tapping into this “deep spiritual root” of communism, something which certainly requires conscious leadership but also profound listening, so that we can dulled roots stir and know how, precisely to respond.

Finally (and this is simply to say that he is fully conscious of the philosophical and theological implications of these earlier moves) Fromm also goes furthest in engaging the religious question of any of the Frankfurt School. He does this from the vantage point of the common Jewish heritage which many of them shared. Specifically, he argues that Marxist atheism is just a radical extension of the traditional Jewish rejection of idolatry and of the emphasis on orthopraxis over orthodoxy. It makes very little difference from a Jewish vantage point whether or not God exists. What matters is that we participate in the creative, loving, and wise power which believers have historically called God. In this sense we neither “seek” nor “build” God, to use the language of the old Russian debate; we live God.

I am more inclined that Fromm to argue both that the question of God matters and that it can be resolved (in the affirmative) by dialectical philosophy. But it is not the most important question. On the contrary, Fromm arrives by a pure via negativa so radical that it becomes atheistic at the same conclusion at which most mystics arrive after a journey which takes them through a dialectical ascent, a dark night of the soul, theological illumination, and yet another dark night. Advanced spirituality consists not in knowing that God will be there for us, but in transcending such infantile self-concern and knowing God first and foremost in being God, however partially and imperfectly, in the midst of our own brokenness, for others.
Sanctuary and Commons

So what does this suggest for the way in which we understand —and act— on the challenges of the present period?

First, it should be clear that the problem of the commodification of labor power and the alienation it engenders is the principal contradiction of the communist movement. Communism consists in transcending this commodification and alienation and unleashing human creativity, sociality, wisdom. But the alienation engendered by commodification effectively undercuts the social basis for the communist project.

Second, there has been no shortage of attempts to confront this problem. But none of these attempts have been adequate to the task at hand. Errors on the right (the theory of the productive forces, which relies on technological progress alone to create the conditions for communism) effectively liquidate the communist project; errors and on the left (Maoism) simply repress rather and addressing alienation, with catastrophic, anticivilizational effects. Along the way there have been some promising insights (e.g. from the Frankfort School) and strategic initiatives (Gramsci’s strategy of cultural hegemony), but none have gone far enough.

Third, alienation is best understood as a spiritual problem with a material basis. As such, both the material and spiritual dimensions of the problem must be addressed simultaneously. We are very far from having created the material conditions for transcending commodification entirely, but we can move to restrict it. This means restoring the commons which, while it may not release people from the need to work, or even from drudgery, will at least release them from the necessity of selling their labor power —and will increase their bargaining power when they do. The most sustainable way to do this is by creating autonomous enterprises held by local communities directly or by sponsoring entities at which people have a right to work and from which they have a right to revenue and which have a practice hospitality for those who cannot work  –much like the monastic communities of old. These enterprises might be anything from farms (in rural areas) and community gardens through advanced high technology industrial or information sector enterprises.

At the same time we must make the opportunity for intellectual, moral, and spiritual growth accessible to everyone —and radically disconnect it from the struggle for upward social mobility which has come to define “higher education” —and the promise of salvation which has come to define religion. Art, music, and literature, history, science, and philosophy, theology and worship and contemplative practice, carried out in the context of a community which stretches us, nurtures us, and holds us accountable, are their own rewards, and the first step towards transcending commodification. A restored commons must be be complemented, in other words, by renewed sanctuaries which nurture the capacities through which we participate in the power of Being as such –the power of the divine. We must, in other words, create spiritual “lures” which attract people to the work of seeking wisdom, doing justice, and ripening being.

This does not, to be sure, eliminate the need for political struggle in the more ordinary sense, whether electoral, armed, or otherwise. Now as in the time when Fromm wrote there is a great tide of darkness which we must resist, even at the cost of our lives. Indeed, this work of resistance remains the principal task in the current conjuncture. And beyond that, an increased social wage (free transportation, education, health care, etc.) and a guaranteed basic income funded through steeply progressive taxation would change conditions more rapidly and create a context in which experiments of the kind we have suggested could flourish. But the resistance to the Dark Enlightenment takes place in the context of a broad popular front against fascism in the context of which we find ourselves uniting not just with the progressive sectors of the bourgeoisie, but also with “liberal conservatives” who are not likely to support even partial and indirect decommodification, especially by way of an increased social wage and a guaranteed basic income. Or, as we have already seen in Europe, where they do support such measures, it is with conditions which tend to keep the market pressures on labor, on which the less advanced sectors of Capital depend, in place. Integrating a broad popular resistance to fascism with the work of restoring the commons and renewing our sanctuaries allows us to get around this problem. And it allows us to be engaged now, in the midst of the darkness, in the work of building a future which will make the Hotel Abyss seem like the necrotic place it really is, a future which, even if it falls far short of true communism, much less of full theosis, is full of love and full of life and pregnant with the God who, whether we believe in Her or not, we all desire.

Adorno, T. W., and Horkheimer, Max. 1944/2002. Dialectic of Enlightenment. Trans. Edmund Jephcott. Stanford: Stanford UP
(Adorno, T. Else Frenkel-Brunswik, Daniel Levinson and Nevitt Sanford. 1950. The Authoritarian Personality, Studies in Prejudice Series, Volume 1. New York: Harper & Row
–––, 1951/2002 Minima Moralia. accessed at
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———. 1988/1989. Eurocentrism. New York: Monthly Review.
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———. 1947/1990. Man for Himself. New York: Holt
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———. 1949a. Il Risorgimento. Torino: Einaudi.
———. 1949b. Note sul Macchiavelli, sulla politica, e sullo Stato Moderno. Torino: Einaudi.
———. 1949c. Gli intelletualli e l’organizzazione di cultura. Torino: Einaudi.
———. 1950. Letteratura e vita nazionale. Torino: Einaudi.
———. 1951. Passato e presente. Torino: Einaudi.
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Hegel, G.W.F. 1807/1967. 1830/1971.Encyclopaedia of the Philosophical Sciences. trans. William Wallace. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.
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———. 1922/1971. History and Class Consciousness, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
———. 1953/1980. The Destruction of Reason. London: Merlin.
Mansueto, Anthony. 1995. Towards Synergism: The Cosmic Significance of the Human Civilizational Project. Lanham, MD: University Press of America.
———. 2002a. Religion and Dialectics. Lanham, MD: University Press of America.
———. 2002b. Knowing God: Restoring Reason in an Age of Doubt. Aldershot, UK: Ashgate.
———. 2010a. The Death of Secular Messianisms. Eugene, OR: Cascade
———. 2010b. Knowing God: The Journey of the Dialectic. Eugene, OR: Pickwick
———. 2011. Knowing God: Doing Justice. Eugene, OR: Pickwick
———. 2012 Knowing God: The Ultimate Meaningfulness of the Universe. Eugene,
OR: Pickwick
———. 2016 The Ways of Wisdom: Towards a Global Convivencia Theology. Eugene, OR: Pickwick
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———. 1867/1977. Capital, Volume One. New York: Vintage.

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Against Third Worldism


Third Worldism[1] is, it seems, making a comeback. Never mind that the peasant wars which formed the mass base for the communist led national liberation movements of the last century all generated patterns of socialist construction which were ultimately just new forms of primitive industrial/capitalist accumulation, always on the back of the peasants because there was no one else in still industrializing societies who could generate the necessary surplus. Never mind that, in the late 1970s when it looked like these national liberation movements might actually be changing the global balance of power (even if they were never going to lead to authentic communism) it took nothing more than a decision by Capital to crush them and their sponsor, the Soviet Union.  Never mind that, at present, rural insurgencies are more likely to be Islamist than Communist led.

The reasons for this renaissance of Third Worldism (in the First World, mind you) are not entirely clear. Partly it is simply an expression of the hegemony of identity politics across the political spectrum. The Heideggerian virus has done its work well. At precisely the moment when the class contradictions of capitalism specifically as Marx[2] them are at long last coming to the fore, not just the Right but also the Left thinks exclusively in terms of conflicts between races or peoples or perhaps genders.  The trend has, perhaps, also gained some momentum from the perception, fueled by recent developments in the electoral sphere, that the European-origin working classes –whether in Europe or in the United States– anxious to defend their “privilege” from the threat of globalization, have turned sharply to the right.

Some Third Worldism –especially the economistic variety represented by Jason Unruhe  ( )— is simply and obviously wrong. Specifically, the idea that revolutionary potential is determined primarily or exclusively by the intensity of exploitation—represents a very simple minded misreading of what Eric Wolf rightly called “the peasant wars of the twentieth century (Wolf 1969).” If this sort of economistic Third Worldism was correct, then most of the planet would have been in state of permanent revolution since the advent of the Bronze Age.

But there are more subtle forms of Third Worldism which carry important truths, yet misunderstand their significance. I recently encountered an especially well developed expression of this sort of nuanced Third Worldism in a small collection of videos exploring the connections between Jewish Messianism, Maoist Third Worldism, and the Frankfurt  School of critical theory, posted under the pseudonym Chaya bat-Tzvi ( I find her perspective deeply disturbing, not least because it resembles rather closely the position I held in my youth —except that she adds an especially unfortunate and rather intimate flirtation with Martin Heidegger and a far more enthusiastic embrace of Mao. Since one of my earliest works, “Religion, Solidarity, and Class Struggle,” (Mansueto 1988) which reflects some aspects of this perspective, continues to be among my most cited, I feel obliged to engage Chaya bat-Tzvi, and to explain both where I think she errs and where I have been forced to correct my earlier position. This is especially important as, in the current situation, elements of her position threaten to both conciliate the ethnonationalist right and to divide the popular front against the Dark Enlightenment.


Let me begin, though, by saying the Chaya bat-Tzvi is by no means wrong about everything, nor was I globally wrong thirty years ago when I wrote. “Religion, Solidarity, and Class Struggle.”  She is correct that communism is a spiritual project. She is correct that communism cannot do without humanity’s older spiritual traditions. She is correct that advanced capitalism, far from spontaneously creating the conditions for communism, in fact undermines them, cultivating “one dimensional humans” as Marcuse put it, who work in order to consume, rather than workers who live in and for their participation in the creative power of Being as such –which is what communism requires. She is correct that history is not linear (though I also reject the claim, which she upholds, that it is, instead, cyclical). And she is correct that the peoples of the Third World have (sometimes) been revolutionary not because they are so exploited, but because they retain more of the memory of spiritual and communal traditions which can provide a basis in experience for understanding and embracing the communist project.

That is a lot to right about. Where, then, does she go wrong?

She will, I think, at least be pleased that I think her errors are fundamentally theological in character. Specifically, my difficulty is with her reading of the Kabbalah, if not, perhaps, with the Kabbalah itself. According to Lurianic Kabbalah (Silberman 1998) creation itself is the result of a kind of catastrophe. The overflowing creative power of God could not be contained in the finite vessels to which it gave birth, and they shattered, scattering divine sparks throughout what can only be regarded as a broken cosmos. The aim of Lurianic Kabbalah is the Tikkun Olam, mending the torn fabric of the universe and returning the scattered sparks of creative power to their divine source, a process which is accomplished through a combination of theurgic ritual and just action, which leads in turn to da’ath ‘elohim or knowledge of God.

Now there are aspects of this theology which, I must confess, seem to me to be problematic, quite apart from Chaya bat-Tzvi’s interpretation. First, the idea that contingent Being emanates from God, rather than being drawn into existence by Her attractive power, tends to promote an understanding of our end or purpose as a return to an “original innocence” rather than as a growth towards our divine goal. Second, at least some interpretations of the Kabbalah imply a univocal metaphysics which regards the divine presence, which is infinite, as incompatible with any finite being. To be sure, unlike Christian and some Muslim doctrines of univocity, there is no implication that we must blindly submit to the univocal divine will. On the contrary, the Jewish God graciously withdraws from creation to allow us to exist. But the human project of theosis is, from this vantage point, damned from the beginning. Only in fully accepting our finitude and living out our limited lives in a world which God, for however good a reason, has abandoned, can we realize what purpose we have. And that purpose, it seems is the result of an accident, a failure of sorts, even if a logically necessary one, in the creative process.

There are, to be sure, ways around this problem. While I prefer an emergentist cosmology in which the universe is drawn into Being by the attractive power of God, it is possible to see the overflowing of divine creative power, even with the brokenness that results, as leading to something deeper and richer and more complex than would ever have existed otherwise. And there are, in fact, powerful tendencies within Judaism which point in this direction, e.g. the rabbinic reading of the story of the “fall” in Genesis as an account of humanity leaving behind its childhood and embracing a mature spirituality of conscious responsibility for the world. Think of the Japanese art of Kitsugi which creates beauty by repairing broken pottery in a way that does not conceal but rather highlights the history of brokenness.

But this not the direction Chaya bat-Tzvi takes with her tradition. She is quite explicit in reading the Tikkun Olam as a return to original innocence. And this ultimately sets the stage for the way in which she (mis)understands revolution and the struggle for justice. We do not have to embrace technological Utopianism to reject its very undialectical opposite: blowing humanity quite literally back to the Stone Age. There are other alternatives.

All of which brings us to her mistakes in social analysis, in her understanding of the communist project, and in her political strategy. Chaya bat-Tzvi, following Heidegger, argues that technology is not neutral, but rather that it is inherently imperialistic, dependent on the exploitation of the planet of and the peoples of the Third World who “mine” that planet. The question, of course, is which technology? Industrial technology, which breaks down existing forms of organization, physical, biological, and social, to release energy and do work is, I agree, deeply problematic and threatens the integrity of the ecosystem and the social fabric —and would do so even if we found a way to extract the resources it requires without exploiting human labor. But there are other technologies, what I have elsewhere (Mansueto 2010, 2016) called hortic or neoalchemical, which tap into the latent potential of matter for complex organization, and catalyze its development. Such technologies offer us the possibility not just of a human future on this planet, but ultimately of finding a way to do more without exploiting either the planet or its inhabitants.

The continued progress of industrial technology, especially coupled with the now almost universal commodification of labor power, continues to erode what little remains of the precapitalist spiritual and communitarian traditions on which Chaya bat-Tzvi would stake the future of humanity. And it turns out that peasants around the planet are more willing to abandon their villages for the hope of a better future in the city than we would ever have imagined. And those who remain increasingly expect to share in at least many aspects of global consumer culture. The era of peasant wars, which Eric Wolf correctly argued were behind the great revolutions of the last century, may well be over. Even if it is not, since the neoliberal “coup” of 1978 there has been effective resolve on the part of Capital to resist them, and to develop the weapons necessary to do so. While rural insurgencies remain impossible or nearly impossible to definitively defeat, they are also no longer capable of victory simply by “surrounding the cities with the countryside.” The danger they posed to Capital was real, but Capital responded and won.

The “peasant wars of the twentieth century,” meanwhile, uniformly led to practices of socialist construction which centered on primitive accumulation on the back of the very peasantry which had made the revolution possible. Where peasant leaders (Zapata) or communist intellectuals (Bukharin) resisted such tendencies, they were rapidly eliminated. And where more recent indigenista and peasant movements, such as the neo-Zapatistas, have renounced the struggle for state power precisely in order to avoid such a trajectory, they have found themselves political marginalized and nearly irrelevant.

At the same time, we have significant evidence that the erosion of communitarian traditions, even in the cities and even in the so-called First World, is never complete. Parishes and congregations and synagogues, masjids and mandirs, sí and wats, miao and guan around the planet continue to be viable centers for not only spiritual but also for political resistance to Capital, as the persistence of congregation based organizing in the United States attests. And the old division between First World and Third World, center and periphery is no longer so clear. Incomes in much of Asia, Africa, and Latin America are rising as they stagnate or fall, especially for the working classes, in Europe, North America, and Japan. And even if capitalism does not create the socialist conditions for communism, in the form of a unified, class conscious working class, it does create contradictions which only communism can solve. Specifically, technological progress is rendering human labor power obsolete, threatening the whole structure of capitalism, which depends on a mass consumer class as well as a proletariat. Even certain elements in Capital, not willing to adopt full blown posthumanist annihilationism, are talking about a guaranteed basic income.

What of the communist project itself? Communism is not just a means of resolving the contradictions created by capitalism. It is an expression of deeply rooted human aspirations. And these aspirations are not just for survival. Nor are they for a return to original innocence. Fundamentally it is a question of creativity. This means, immediately, the autonomy of human creativity from scarcity and thus the burden of working simply to reproduce, rather than to create, as well as the freedom of human creativity from commodification and thus from subordination to market forces. But ultimately our creative drive is, as we have argued elsewhere (Mansueto 2016), fundamentally a drive towards theosis. We are the desire to be God. Marx (Marx 1844/1978) was quite clear on this: his “communism is” not just “the solution to the riddle of history” but also the “resolution of the contraction between Being and essence.”  Understood in the context of the broader history the dialectical tradition, for which God is the power of Being as such, for whom Being and Essence are identical, this means nothing less than full theosis. Marx was, as Bogdanov and Gorky and Lunacharsky argued, fundamentally a godbuilder (Rowley 1987).

There are, to be sure, serious questions which can be raised about this project, and especially about Marx’s specific strategy for its realization. There are, first of all, grave problems with technological efforts to transcend scarcity, problems which have nothing to do with the ecological damage caused by or the human exploitation involved in supporting industrial technology.  Intelligent machines which do our work for us are, in effect, slaves –a problem which Aristotle already recognized in his “defense” of slavery

For if every instrument could accomplish its own work, obeying or anticipating the will of others, like the statues of Daedalus, or the tripods of Hephaestus, which, says the poet,  “of their own accord entered the assembly of the Gods; ” if, in like manner, the shuttle would weave and the plectrum touch the lyre without a hand to guide them, chief workmen would not want servants, nor masters slaves. (Aristotle Politics 1.4).

Furthermore, is it even possible for a rational animal capable of the concept of the infinite to transcend scarcity? Won’t we –shouldn’t we—always aspire to more? Once all are fed and clothed and housed and transported, healed and educated, won’t there still be contradictions between those who want build cathedrals and those who want to build starships? Is such tension really a bad thing? I don’t think so. But it remains necessary to decide the optimum allocation of resources, and someone or everyone will be somewhat disappointed.

If, on the other hand, we take the Maoist and Third Worldist approach of shared poverty, and try to decommodify labor by transcending selfishness through political and ideological struggle, we create even more serious problems. A party compact and cohesive enough to be politically effective against Capital –much less to authentically make humanity the master of its own destiny, and thus transcend contingency– also undermines individual rational autonomy, creating contradictions within socialism which no party has yet been able to resolve. And the Cultural Revolution did not so much leverage Chinese spiritual traditions to create the spiritual conditions for communism as almost utterly destroy Chinese Civilization, leaving the country quite literally de-moral-ized[3].

It is, finally, by no means clear how the decommodification of labor, with or without technology that allows us to transcend scarcity, actually elevates humanity to the status of Being as such.  A great liberation, yes, and one worth fighting for. But it is not theosis. And we don’t yet know even how to get there –much less to the theosis which is our authentic vocation.

The Frankfurt School on which Chaya bat-Tzvi relies so heavily was profoundly aware of most, if not all, of these problems, and it is why, the relative success of popular front strategies as a road to power for the Communist Party notwithstanding, they were quite pessimistic about humanity’s prospects even after the defeat of fascism.

This brings, us finally, to Chaya bat-Tzvi’s strategic perspective. This is, to be fair, a less developed aspect of her analysis. But she does say that we need to “create the conditions for revolution) in both the Third World and the First, and mentions the name of Louis August Blanqui, known for his focus on the role of a small revolutionary elite in “overthrowing” capitalism and imposing a new social order from above, without any real mass base.  This amounts to a caricature in advance of Leninism which, whatever its other limitations, always understood that conscious leadership is exercised in relationship to a mass base (indeed, in relationship to a complex alliance between diverse constituencies).

This is not only wrong, it is dangerous.  Revolutionary elites of the sort envisioned by Blanqui and actually created by Lenin and his followers all derive from the humanistic intelligentsia. This is because the humanistic intelligentsia, privileged in other respects, feels most directly the deepest contradictions of capitalism, which constrain us by way of the commodification of labor power even if we are exploited lightly or not at all. The humanistic intelligentsia is the revolutionary vanguard of which Marx spoke, which alone understands the “conditions, line of march, and ultimate general result” of this historical process (Marx1848/1978).  But humanistic intellectuals are also first group targeted (closely followed by the peasantry) as socialist societies become the matrix for the formation of a new ruling class, whether we understand this, with Amin as statist or with Mao as capitalist. This suggests that even in alliance with the peasantry and working class the ability of the humanistic intelligentsia to build power has been limited. How will it do better on its own? Perhaps we need instead to ask why the aims of the humanistic intelligentsia have failed to capture the imagination of the other social classes they have proposed to lead. Perhaps the workers and peasants, even if they are not fully clear on why the decommodification of labor power is important, recognize that it is not the “solution to the riddle of history,” much less the resolution of the contradiction between Being and essence.” The resolution of that contradiction is a spiritual and not a political aim. It is precisely the cultivation of messianic expectations among the people, facilitated by confusion between the spiritual and the civilizational aims of communism that has allowed a section of the intelligentsia to constitute itself as a new ruling class and then liquidate the broader movement which brought it to power.


I would like to discuss briefly, in closing, the ways in which my current position reflects a change from the views expressed in “Religion, Solidarity, and Class Struggle (Mansueto 1988),” a paper which shares considerable common ground with the tendency Chaya bat-Tzvi represents. Some of these changes, to be sure, have nothing to do with Third Worlsim. Focused as I was on the already receding revolutionary tide in Latin America, at the time I wrote “Religion, Solidarity, and Class Struggle” I tended to emphasize the revolutionary potential of Christianity as against its deeply rooted tendency towards anti-semitism and it vulnerability to a univocal metaphysics, analysis of which have deepened and broadened my perspective since then. While I still believe that my claim that “atheism is a form of bourgeois ideology” has significant merit (because, from a Durkheimian perspective, the idea of God is a reflex of social structure, and atheism thus reflects a rejection of social solidarity) I am more conscious now of the many meanings of atheism (atheism of the intellect, driven by authentic doubt, as opposed to atheism of the will, driving by a desire to be free to exploit; nihilistic atheism which denies ultimate meaning versus Buddhist and para-Buddhist atheisms, which find meaning by the via negative or apophatic way, in the interdependent origination of all things).

But it is my more nuanced understanding of “the peasant wars of the twentieth century” which is most significant to this discussion. In 1988 I still largely accepted Samir Amin’s arguments regarding the articulation of the relationship between class and nation, and thus saw the Third World national liberation movements as the cutting edge of the struggle for socialism (though I still argued for the existence of a strategic reserve for this movement among the working classes of the imperial centers, sustained more by their spiritual and communitarian traditions than by their economic situation).

I continue to believe that precapitalist spiritual and communitarian traditions are an important reservoir or wisdom and solidarity for humanity, and will contribute significantly to charting the next steps in the human civilizational project. But the “socialist revolutions” which “succeeded” –largely on the basis of the support of peasants motivated by the spiritual and communitarian traditions– were not really about a transition to communism. For the peasants they were about defending a traditional way of life threatened by the penetration of capitalist relations into the countryside. And for the leaders (at least those who survived), they were ultimately about primitive accumulation, industrialization and national development.

Furthermore, the “socialist consciousness” possible on the basis of peasant traditions turns out to have had significant limitations. Specifically, there was little or nothing in these traditions to support the aspiration either for rational autonomy. Liberal rights are never enough, and liberal theory does a very bad job of grounding these rights. But without liberal rights neither democracy nor communism are possible. It is not surprising that to the extent that actually existing socialisms succeeded in creating the social conditions under which such aspirations could emerge, they have found expression in support for “capitalist restorations” which seemed to offer more freedom than actually existing socialisms, and not just for elites.

We jettison either the traditional spiritual/communitarian or the liberal roots of the communist project at our peril.

None of this is to suggest that we cannot and should not try to approach communism as closely as we can, both through (hortic) technological progress which may change the discussion around scarcity in important ways and by drawing on spiritual disciplines, old and new, to help cultivate virtue and promote humanity’s growth towards the theosis it desires. But this is a very longue dureé project. And we do not advance it by talk about “ending history” through some sort of unspecified Blanquist provocation dressed up as messianic expectation. We cannot simply create the conditions for revolution in either the First or the Third Worlds. Those conditions mature over time, and when the “revolution” comes it may well not look very revolutionary at all.

For now, our task is to resist the Dark Enlightenment and the accellerationist/traditionalist coalition it is building, something that requires a broad popular front between partisans of all authentically humanistic traditions, liberal, democratic, and communist, as well as those who follow the various axial ways[4], while we continue to work patiently, hidden, ripening Being and preparing for the time when something like an authentic communism becomes possible. This is not social democracy or centrism. It is the authentically communist position —the stance of a maturing communism which knows that its time has not yet come, but will. It is the position which Benjamin would have taken had he seen fascism’s farcical reprise. And it is what the Tzadikim who Chaya bat-Tzvi so rightly reveres have been doing for millennia.



Amin, Samir. 1979/1980. Class and Nation, Historically and in the Current Crisis. New York: Monthly  Review.

Aristotle. c. 350 BCE/1946.   Politics, trans. Ernest Barker. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Jaspers, Karl. 1953. The Origin and Goal of History. New Haven: Yale University Press

Mansueto, Anthony. 1988       “Religion, Solidarity, and Class Struggle,” in Social Compass XXXV:2

———. 2010. The Death of Secular Messianisms. Eugene, OR: Cascade

———. 2016. The Ways of Wisdom. Eugene, OR: Cascade

Marx, Karl.

———. 1844/1978. Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts. New York: Norton.

———. 1848/1978.    The Communist Manifesto, in Marx-Engels Reader. New York: Norton.

Rowley, David. 1987. Millenarian Bolshevism. New York: Garland

Silberman, Neil Asher.  1998. Heavenly Powers. New York: Grosset-Putnam

Wolf, Eric. 1969. Peasant Wars of the Twentieth Century. New York: Harper



[1] By “Third Worldism,” in this context, we mean the doctrine that the principal or even exclusive mass base for socialist revolution is to be located in the oppressed peoples of Asia, Africa, and Latin America, and not in the working classes generally. It includes, but is not limited to, Mao’s Three Worlds Theory, according to which the Soviet Union represented not a socialist sphere evolving, however, imperfectly, towards communism, but rather a rising imperialist power and the “principal enemy of the peoples of the earth.” In practice, though, after China’s turn towards the United States in the 1970s, most Third World liberation movements had Soviet rather than Chinese sponsorship and advocates of the Three Worlds Theory joined disillusioned Trotskyists as strategic reserves the US counterinsurgency apparatus. The most intelligent and rigorous statement of the Third Worldist position remains Samir Amin’s Class and Nation, Historically and in the Present Period (Amin 1978/1980).

[2]  Marx understood class not in terms of privilege (which is really a status claim), or even in terms of exploitation, but rather in terms of position in the relations of production. Under capitalism this means that class is determined not by income or even by whether or not one “contributes” or consumes surplus value, but by whether or not one is forced to sell one’s labor power in order to survive and thus whether or not one suffers the alienation of labor associated with the wage relation. It is precisely class contradictions understood in this sense which are now come to the fore, as technological progress makes human labor obsolete and the value of labor power to falls towards zero, both because the declining value of labor power threatens a catastrophic crisis of underconsumption, and because the possibility of liberating humanity from noncreative labor is, for the first time, quite possibly on the horizon.

[3] It is worth commenting briefly in this context on Chaya bat-Tvzi’s claim that Mao was a Taoist sage. Are there Taoist elements in Mao Zedong Thought?  Of course there are. Mao was Chinese. But there are also powerful Legalist elements (power grows from the barrel of gun). His vision of a vastly simplified society focused on meeting the most basic material needs of the people, without investment in ritual and high culture, was distinctly Mohist. While Mao attacked Confucius, he expected members of the party to show a deference to their “leadership” which was deeply rooted in Confucian culture and employed Confucian categories quite explicitly in analyzing the principal relationships of human society. And the overall character of the movement he led was more nearly in the Xiantiando (the way of the former heaven) tradition than in the vein of any of China’s axial traditions.

[4] The reference here is to the traditions deriving from the Axial Age, the period of religious problematization, rationalization, and democratization between 800 and 200 BCE which saw the birth of Judaism and Hellenism, Upanishadic Hinduism and Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism (Jaspers 1953).


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The Dark Enlightenment: Accelerationism and Traditionalism on the Global Right

The November 2016 US General Election marks a new turn in the global political terrain.  Long standing, deeply rooted –but hitherto largely hidden– political forces which call themselves the Dark Enlightenment have leveraged a highly anomalous political situation to capture positions of significant influence on the Presidency of the United States, an office which, while far from omnipotent, significantly enhances their ability to affect the direction of the human civilizational project over the coming period. And even if, as seems entirely probable, their hold on the Presidency collapses, the Dark Enlightenment will not disappear. It is, therefore, imperative that we understand the nature of the social forces they represent, their political valence, their relationship with other political tendencies across the spectrum, the likely impact of their control of the presidency (however brief) and their likely future trajectory.

Understanding the Dark Enlightenment will require significant revisions in our analysis of the situation for human civilization, and of the current alignment of forces globally and in the United States. It will also require significant analysis of the complex ideological dynamics of the tendency itself and of its position in relationship to competing tendencies across the political-theological spectrum. This will, in turn, allow us to assess the likely impact of their strategic victory in November, how they are likely to use it, how the trend is likely to evolve in the future, and how we should respond.

What Happened?

Not just the November 2016 US General Election, but the “Brexit” vote in the United Kingdom last June and the sudden rise of what has been called, variously right-wing populism, national conservatism, and ethnonationalism have caught political analysts rather by surprise. We have considered the US election specifically in another context, arguing that the result is in significant measure a product of contingent developments (especially interventions by the Russian State and elements in the US criminal justice system). But the broader trend is significant and it requires explanation. This is especially true since the “standard model[1]” of the alignment of political forces in the neoliberal era, while it explains why such a trend would exist, points not towards its sudden resurgence, but towards its secular decline.

According to the standard model, the dominant force driving global politics is technological progress which has, in turn, set in motion a process of capitalist globalization, leading to the formation of a single, unified global market in capital, labor, goods, and services. The principal cleavages in global politics are defined in relation to these dynamics. The hegemonic neoliberal bloc based in finance capital and the information and technology sectors favors free markets (including, especially, the free flow of Capital), the rule of law, some degree of public accountability for the political authorities (if not, perhaps, democracy in its deeper sense) and a broadly secular outlook in the context of ideological and cultural pluralism. There is broad acceptance of the reality of anthropogenic climate change, and of serious ecological contradictions generally, of the need to address them at a global scale. Elements within the bloc differ over the proper extent (but not the necessity) of the welfare state, liberal rights, and democracy. They are also divided over the extent to which they regard scientific, technological, and economic progress or liberal and democratic politics as the principal agents of human liberation.

Arrayed against this hegemonic bloc, according to the standard model, are relatively small “left” and “right” oppositions composed largely of those “left behind” by technological progress and globalization. These “left behind” elements are defined more by sector than by class. Thus he “left” opposition is localized largely in the humanistic intelligentsia, for whom the global market’s agnosticism regarding questions of meaning and value (which is what we “produce”) represents an existential threat. Alliances with other social sectors tend to be tactical or at best operational (campaigns around specific issues) rather than strategic or fundamental, which is why the left finds itself so marginalized. Indeed, paradoxically for those whose understanding of global politics is still dominated by the struggles of 150 years ago, (but not for those who understand the complexity and fluidity of political alignments) this class fraction finds itself most closely allied with elements of the clerical intelligentsia, which has a similar economic base and a similar professional formation, with sharp contradictions arising mostly around questions of sexuality and gender.

This “left” opposition is represented by movements such as Podemos, La France insoumise, and Syriza in Europe, the Sanders campaign in the US, and the now receding marea rosa in Latin America.  The European and US cases represent the ability of a fairly large “mass” humanistic intelligentsia to build some alliances with other forces affected by instrumental (capitalist) rationalization, which proceeds apace under center-left neoliberal governments as it does under the center-right. It should be noted, however, that only in the case of Syriza has this resulted in a coalition capable of governing, and then only in a way which has not actually differentiated it sharply from the center-left. The marea-rosa, on the other hand, represents (at least in the Andean region) a kind of “red-brown” alliance with elements on the right, mediated by populist regimes which do not so much propose an alternative to capitalist rationalization, as temporarily and unsustainably ameliorating it by carrying out redistributionist policies supported by mineral rents.

The “right” opposition, on the other hand, consists of those sectors of the bourgeoisie based in the extractive sector and low technology, low skill, low wage industry (the latter mostly in otherwise advanced capitalist countries where such activities are no longer profitable) together with allied elements in the working classes and the petty bourgeoisie. It articulates its resistance to globalization through a range of implicitly and explicitly ideologies from “national conservatism” through ethnonationalism and various religious fundamentalisms to more or less explicit neofascism.

Trump, Farage, Le Pen, and –in a somewhat difference sense, because he represents a left behind imperial state, rather than just certain economic sectors—Putin, represent this right opposition. There are similar elements in India, in the Bharatiya Janata Party, but for now they remain in alliance with center-right neoliberals. And there are elements of this sort in China (reflected in China’s occasional nationalistic moves in relationship to Japan and its other neighbors), but they seem to be firmly under the control of a party leadership which operates within the context of an authoritarian variant of the center-left neoliberal consensus stripped, to be sure, of  its liberal and democratic residues.

There are, to be sure, tendencies and parties which are all but impossible to locate on this spectrum, such as the Italian Cinque Stelle which looks in many ways like Podemos, France Insoumise, or Syriza, but integrates elements of accelerationism which put it at least in dialogue with the alt-right and which has been willing to sit with far right parties in the European Parliament. One might also put at least some of those who supported Bernie Sanders in the US but refused to support the Democratic Party in the general election, such as the so-called “Bernie Bros” in this category.

I would like to argue that, while this “standard model” retains significant explanatory power, it is now in need of fundamental revision. Specifically, the “standard model” misses 1) the impending development of industry past the point at which the exploitation of human labor power is the condition of possibility for the accumulation of capital, and 2) the emergence of Capital as an autonomous force independent of any actually existing human bourgeoisie. While the political trends acknowledged by the “standard model” all exist, they represent a now passing stage in the human civilizational project, a kind of Eighteenth Brumaire re-enacting the struggles of the 1920s and 1930s because we do not yet have the language, much less the theoretical tools to analyze the struggles of our own century.

The critical thing here is to understand that at some point in the last decade marked transition from globalization to automation as the defining material factor framing the broader political economic situation. In 2005 Thomas Friedman (Friedman 2005) wrote:

When I was growing up, my parents used to say to me, “Tom, finish your dinner — people in China are starving.” But after sailing to the edges of the flat world for a year, I am now telling my own daughters, “Girls, finish your homework — people in China and India are starving for your jobs.”

Today the conversation at a fully honest family dinner table would run more like this:

Kids, I am sorry. No degree of underlying talent and no amount of studying are going to be enough. For most of you, a robot is going to be able to do your job better than you can, or at least so much cheaper than you can, that no one is ever going to hire you. And no, I don’t have a solution.

This has, in turn, changed the nature of the underlying debate within the bourgeoisie. Ten years ago, indeed in the entire period from 1978 to 2007, the struggle was between those who argued that the advanced countries needed to adapt to globalization by investing massively in infrastructure, research, education and development in order to capture the technological top tier of the global production chain and those who argued that to be competitive we needed to deregulate and drive wages down to Third World levels. In reality, of course, most advocated a bit of both. This reflected a fundamental cleavage between the more advanced, high technology, high skill, high wage sectors of Capital and lower wage, lower technology sectors.

There were, to be sure, a few notable exceptions to this pattern. Attempting to defend fossil fuel dependence in the face of growing evidence that it is resulting in unsustainable climate change put the extractive sector firmly on the right. And because of the territorial nature of resource supplies, and the role of the military in defending access to them, aerospace and defense leaned in this direction as well. Health care, which long leaned to the right because of the peculiar privileges accorded it in the US economy, also continued to do so, but took an increasingly pragmatic stance as health care reform became inevitable.

Finance capital, which has interests across the economy, leaned towards the more progressive sector, but hedged its bets politically as it did speculatively.

These two bourgeois factions, in turn, formed the core of the Democratic and Republican parties respectively, sharing out among them various sectors of the petty bourgeoisie and proletariat more by sector than by class position. Indeed, we can now say with some certainty that 1976 and 1980 were realigning elections and that the polarization between those benefiting and those left behind by globalization, and between those advocating competitiveness through investment in technological and human capital and those advocating competitiveness by wage reductions was the defining alignment of the period from 1978-2007.

Today this alignment is beginning to disintegrate. It remains, to be sure, the social basis on which the Democratic and Republican parties in the US are organized. But the struggle is, increasingly, less about globalization and more about automation: between those who are beginning to acknowledge that the transition to a post-work economy will require massive income or consumption subsidies for the vast majority who cannot reasonably be expected to remain competitively productive and those who are arguing for policies which would, in effect, “slough off” what will rapidly become an ever growing surplus population. And the cleavage around the ecological crisis is also changing. It is increasingly between those who, while unsure what to do, really do recognize that we are at the beginning of a crisis, and those who seem increasingly to behave as though it might be possible to inhabit a humanly uninhabited planet.

The problem, of course, is that while both “investing in technology and human capital” on the one hand, and “loosening labor markets” on the other, are both marketable and doable, we have absolutely no idea how to pay for something like a universal living basic income.  And what we cannot sell what we cannot offer. And no one is willing to say that we just need to “slough off” a surplus population which may amount to the vast majority of the planet’s population. The case for the policies which would, in the end, accomplish this must be legitimated on other grounds.

This is where the Dark Enlightenment comes in.  The neoliberal alignment already represented a significant distancing of even the more progressive sectors of the bourgeoisie from their erstwhile allies in the “Fordist” working class. But the massive expansion of the information and technology sectors over the course of the past 30 years, while not requiring the same quantum leap in income for the “metropolitan” working class as the old Fordist model, nonetheless depended on continuing expansion of the market for information services and consumer electronics, and thus on global expansion of demand. It also presupposed the continuing existence of a habitable planet. But increasingly some elements of high technology Capital and its associated “gentry” or intelligentsia (those scientists and engineers enjoying monopoly rents on skill or innovations)  are beginning to envision leaving behind the “biological substrate” of human existence entirely, uploading their consciousness to electronic platforms which could survive without a human “market” to which to sell their products, and without a humanly habitable planet.  This is not to suggest that the majority of high technology Capital has abandoned humanity. But some elements are beginning to do so.

Closely associated with this phenomenon is the emergence of Capital as an autonomous power, independent of its “bourgeois” substrate. In a certain sense Capital has always and already been independent of individual “capitalists.” It inhabits, rather, the ecosystem of humanity generally and the marketplace in particular. Technological developments which allow instantaneous and automated transfers of capital, and more especially the development financial networks which have the potential to develop artificial intelligence, facilitate and advance this independence, but they are not necessary for it. Indeed, what has changed over the course of the past 40 years is not just the development of new information technologies and their application in the financial sector, but the relative decline of civil society and the state (including organs controlled by the bourgeoisie) by comparison with market forces. And so, just as a fraction of the bourgeoisie is exploring the possibility of a posthuman, technologically mediated immortality, Capital is beginning to migrate to a new, silicon based platform.


What is the Dark Enlightenment?

The Dark Enlightenment is, fundamentally, the ideological expression of the early stages in this process. The term “Dark Enlightenment” or “neoreaction” refers, strictly speaking, to a rather small and narrow tendency in the broader “alt-right.” It appears to have its roots in Silicon Valley among a group of software engineers and information technology entrepreneurs who originally joined a transhumanist or accelerationist[2] agenda with libertarian politics. This tendency was libertarian not primarily because of a commitment to freedom, but because they believed that free markets were the best way to catalyze rapid technological progress.

This synthesis of technological progressivism and right leaning politics is nothing new. In the 1980s and 1990s Frank Tipler argued that humanity could, should, and would build God by re-engineering the universe into a massive supercomputer running off of the gravitational sheer created in the final instants of a closed universe which would run emulations of everything that was logically possible. And, following Frederick Hayek (Hayek 1988) he argued that free markets would get us to this point fastest (Barrow and Tipler 1986, Tipler 1994). But for Tipler and indeed for Hayek “right-leaning” meant free markets, not ethnonationalism and authoritarianism.

Sometime around 2006 or 2007 elements within this “right accelerationist” trend, including Curtis Yarvin (aka Mencius Moldberg), Peter Thiel, and Michael Asimov began to realize that libertarian economics did not stand a chance in a democracy. And so they began to argue for abandoning democracy in favor of a network of autocratic corporate city states in which people would have the right of “exit” but no “voice.” Anyone wished to (at least anyone with the necessary resources) could, in other words, leave one city state for another, better run alternative. But within each city state, one would have to toe its line. The idea is that the owners of these city states would be motivated to run them as well as possible and thus to attract the best and the brightest. Gradually they began to draw on the ideas of antidemocratic theorists, both from the first third of the twentieth century, including traditionalists such as Julius Evola (Evola 1934) and Rene Guenon (Guenon 1927), who had a quite different political-theological agenda, and more recent thinkers such as Hans Herman Hoppe (Hoppe 2001). They also began to attract around them a periphery of related trends which distinguished themselves from other currents on the right by the purportedly scientific basis of their claims: the “human biodiversity trend,” which argues that there really are genetically determined races with distinct, if not necessarily superior or inferior biological adaptations (Frost 2015, Fuerst 2015), and the “androsophere” (Valizadeh 2017) which argues for traditional gender roles on the basis of sociobiological and similar arguments.

What is the link between right accelerationism on the one hand and traditionalism, racism, and misogyny on the other? The answer is in an evolutionary understanding of human society. Here the intellectual heavy lifting was already done by Frederick Hayek (Hayek 1988) who argued that traditional practices, among which he included not only capitalism but also language, traditional family structures and sexual moralities, and religion, survived precisely because they promote survival. But Hayek was very careful to avoid specifically racist conclusions, treating practices and not genes, individual organisms, or collectivities such as “races” (the very existence of which he denied) as the unit of selection. The Dark Enlightenment is not so cautious. For this trend, selection operates across practices, collectivities, organisms, and genes. And even if we were to call Hayek’s commitment to democracy into question, it is fairly clear he always thought of capitalism as having to provide goods and services to very large numbers of human beings. For reasons we will see, the Dark Enlightenment points us beyond the mass market and thus beyond capitalism as we have historically understood it.

Finally, we should note that the Dark Enlightenment is defined in part by polarization on what it calls the Cathedral, by which it means the complex of hegemonic academic, cultural, and liberal religious institutions, including the mass media which, it argues promotes a more or less secularized version of liberal Christianity. The Dark Enlightenment is quite vigorous in pursuing this polemic, and in using Christian as a term of derision, attaching even militant New Atheists such as Dawkins and Denton as shills for the Cathedral.

The Dark Enlightenment associates the Cathedral specifically with the Puritan tradition. It is quite insightful, in this regard in tracing the specific cultural roots of what has come to be called liberalism (more properly social liberalism) in the United States. The spiritual shadow cast by Puritanism over the center left in the United States is evident in the fact that progressive politics are seen to be first and foremost a reflection of an innate spiritual superiority than an expression of definite social interests. This is one legacy of the Reformed Tradition, and especially its liberal variants, which looked to “usefulness to society,” expressed through either economic productivity or (in this case) commitment to social justice, as evidence of divine election. And this pattern holds even for those whose Calvinism has become fully immanentized. Against this Puritan or “Roundhead” legacy, the Dark Enlightenment identifies with the Cavalier tradition and with its legacy in the Deep South, and indeed with traditionalist trends generally.

One way of understanding the Dark Enlightenment is as the final product of the degeneration of the Social Darwinist tradition more generally. To a tendency which claim that colonialism and slavery, industry and capitalism, white supremacy and patriarchy are justified scientifically because they represent the application of the principles of natural selection to human beings, human societies, and human cultural practices, and are superior adaptations to the task of survival under conditions of scarcity, the combined and contradictory threats of ecological catastrophe and technologically mediated abundance would seem to be fatal. But no fear: survival and fitness have been redefined. Survival no longer means the survival of humanity as a species, but rather the evolution of posthuman forms of intelligence which no longer require a biological substrate or a human working class to support them.

The Dark Enlightenment imagines that this posthuman intelligence will emerge from “early adopters” of “consciousness uploading.” More likely it will be the asuric power of Capital itself.

Finally, we should point out that, taken together with related tendencies, such as left transhumanism and accelerationism and the New Atheism, the Dark Enlightenment points out the need to revise in some measure our “civilizational crisis” thesis (Mansueto 2010). In its original form this thesis argued that we are in the early stages of a crisis of the both the dominant technocratic secular ideal and the subaltern humanistic secular ideal, because almost no one found their fundamental claims: that scientific, technological, and economic progress could allow humanity to transcend the limits of finitude or that the creation of a self-determining political subject, whether the rationally autonomous individual, the people, or the working class could allow humanity to transcend its contingency and realize the power of Being as such. Clearly, at this juncture, there has been a significance resurgence of technological utopianism on both the left and the right, especially among millennials. And the phenomenon of the “return of religion” which dominated much political analysis between 1978 and 2007 seems to have receded some.

But this does not mean that the crisis of technocratic secularism has been overcome. On the contrary, transhumanism in all its forms is a manifestation of this crisis, as it is increasingly apparent that, for all the good it can do, technological progress is not the definitive solution to all human problems. Instead, technological progress, especially under an industrial technological regime, makes humanity itself into a problem to be overcome, which is precisely what the Dark Enlightenment proposes to do.


Strategic Implications

What are the strategic implications of the emergence of the Dark Enlightenment? We should be clear, to begin with, that even within the Trump government, the Dark Enlightenment is only one force among many. Trump himself, and his family, are first and foremost opportunistic cleptocrats who are insufficiently developed to hold a consistent ideology, even a dark and sinister one. The Republican Party which profited, almost certainly accidently, from Trump’s rise is, at this point itself not much more than a vehicle for the most opportunistic and rapacious sectors of the bourgeoisie looking to capture some short term gains in tax or energy policy. And it is not clear that they will be able to continue to support Trump indefinitely without threatening their own position. Under these circumstances, what we are witnessing is most likely not the first stage in the emergence of a corporate state lead by a Dark Enlightenment vanguard. It is more like an accidental and very premature coming out party for a political tendency which will have to develop a more sophisticated alliance strategy if it is to accomplish its aims.

This said, the tendency does represent real and potentially very powerful social forces. We had best know how to resist. Here, as in our broader response to the Trump government, we favor a dual strategy integrating popular front and longue durée elements. On the one hand, we need to unite not only the left opposition and the progressive wing of the hegemonic neoliberal bloc, but also those conservatives who affirm the value of a specifically human civilization (and thus a viable ecosystem and meaningful, sustainable future for the population of this planet. A focus on humanity and on the earth will serve to neutralize not only opportunistic “left behind” elements within the bourgeoisie (and their allies in the petty bourgeoisie and working classes) who are tempted by the opportunistic and rapacious policies of the broader Republican Party, but also those on the “left” who are tempted by transhumanism and accelerationism. This should be expressed by, among other things, a polemic against transhumanism and accelerationism as bad science.  At the same time, we must resist maximalist tendencies which demand now revolutionary changes (or even reforms, such as a universal living basic income) which we do not know how to make and the conditions for which are only beginning to emerge. For now, our aim is to defeat Trump (and the Dark Enlightenment along with him) as well as all of the other right wing populist/national conservative parties which have come to power, and to begin to gradually reshape the hegemonic progressive bloc in a more humanistic direction.

Our revolutionary commitments, however, must not go unexpressed. It is just that they must be expressed over the longue durée, through the work of refining a new civilizational ideal which integrates axial and humanistic elements, balancing spirituality and a commitment to civilizational progress. We must also begin to articulate what kind of structures might support that ideal. How do we navigate simultaneously an ecological crisis which suggests that current levels of consumption are unsustainable, at least on the basis of current technologies, and technological developments which suggest that both scarcity and non-creative drudgery may be a thing of the past?

As we are doing this we need to work hard to identify, cultivate, and mentor leaders who are capable of thinking and acting over centuries and millennia, and we need to (re)build institutions which can do the same. You can find more extended thoughts on what this all means in The Death of Secular Messianisms and The Ways of Wisdom (Mansueto 2010, 2016), as well as in many of my earlier posts in this blog.

We live in a dangerous period. But by understanding the real nature of these dangers we also discover the incredible strength of the creative power that we are fighting for –that fights in and through us. The present is dark, but it allows to once again see the stars. The future is brilliant.


Evola, Julius 1934. Rivolta contro il mondo modero. Milano: Hoepli.

Friedman, Thomas. 2005. The World is Flat. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Frost, Peter. 2015. “The emerging synthesis in human biodiversity.” Evo & Proud, Jan. 3, 2015.

Fuerst, John. 2015. “The nature of race.” Open Behavioral Genetics, June, 2015.

Guenon, René 1927. La crise du monde moderne. Paris: Gallimard

Hayek, F.A. 1988. Fatal Conceit. Chicago: University of Chicago Press

Hoppe, Hans-Hermann. 2001. Democracy: The God that Failed. Transaction Press

Land, Nick. 2012. The Dark Enlightenment. Accessed at

Mansueto, Anthony. 2010. The Death of Secular Messianisms. Eugene, OR: Cascade

———. 2016 The Ways of Wisdom. Eugene, OR: Pickwick

Moldberg, Mencius. 2008. “An open letter to open minded progressives,” in Unqualified Reservations.  Accessed at

More, Max.  1990. “Transhumanism: Towards a Futurist Philosophy,” Extropy 6,. Accessed at

Valizadeh, Roosh. 2017. Return of Kings. Accessed at

Williams, Alex and Srnicek, Nick.  2013. “#Accelerate: Manifesto for an Accelerationist Politics,” Critical Legal Studies. Accessed at



[1] By the “standard model” of global politics I mean the prevailing consensus regarding what constitute the principal political and ideological tendencies globally, their social basis, and strategic, operational, and tactical orientation. This consensus is widely shared, albeit with some variations, across most of the political and ideological spectrum and across the range of disciplines involved in analyzing global politics.

[2] By transhumanist (More 1990), I mean any perspective which looks to technology not simply to unleash the full creative potential of humanity, but to bring into being new forms of organization, superior to humanity, and would realize humanity’s drive to transcend finitude by means of scientific and technological progress. Accelerationism is a specific transhumanist global strategy which looks to the radical intensification of current technological and economic trends, including commoditization, in order to either draw out the contradictions of capitalism and lead to a postcapitalist breakthrough which will make transhumanist technology possible (left accelerationism, e. g. Williams and Srnicek 2013) or, more commonly, in order to directly bring about such technological progress within a capitalist context (right accelerationism, e.g. Land 2012).

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Against Normalization

Eight years ago, reflecting on President Barack Obama’s first inaugural address, I wrote that :

… this man Barack will not be our Moses or our Solon, our Ashoka or our Duke of Chou. Such spirits have already risen in this republic and have already fallen.  He is, rather, more like our Marcus Aurelius, the worthy bearer of a worthy ideal, who will fight hard for what he believes and perhaps buy America another century and the world time to find a new ideal and new structures, but who in the end cannot save the civilization he leads …

… Believing in the (American) ideal is at once the condition of [his] recognized leadership and its undoing.

At the time my focus was on Obama’s affirmation of the marketplace as integral the American ideal. But in the light of President Obama’s profoundly troubling farewell, another dimension of his understanding the American ideal seems to be constraining him. His commitment to a peaceful and orderly transition, and to upholding public trust in democratic institutions, seems to have compromised his grasp of, or at least his public response to, the extent to which democratic institutions have already been compromised and the extent to which the liberal order and indeed humanity itself are threatened by electoral catastrophe of November 2016.

President Obama has, to be sure –once again– been dealt a bad hand. Our political structure, lacking an authentic senate which must affirm the validity of popular decisions based on their conformity to natural as well as positive law, provides for no effective legal remedy for the wrongs committed by Trump and those who helped “elect” him.  Even if the criminal complicity on the part of Trump or members of his organization with Russian and FBI interference in the election could be established, this would at best set in motion a chain of prosecutions, resignations, and/or impeachments until the Presidency passed to an individual who had not been complicit in such crimes. The person to whom the Presidency passed would almost certainly be a Republican. There is no provision in our constitution or laws for a “do-over.” And key conditions for valid extralegal action –last resort, probability of success, and proportionality in particular—have not yet been clearly established. Even if the conditions for extralegal struggle were met, the outgoing President is probably not best deployed leading the charge.

What could President Obama do?

My answer to this question is, unfortunately, that he could have done a great deal more than he did. It does not fall to a sitting President to pass judgment on the validity, under either positive law or natural law, of a particular election or of the authority exercised by his supposed successor. Judgments under positive law belong to the courts and judgments under natural law to the magisterium exercised, in our pluralistic society, by scholars and teachers across our diverse spiritual and civilizational traditions.  But he did not need to speak as if this was a normal transition when it is not. He could have thematized the problematic character of the transition and spoken directly to the dilemma he has faced in handling it. He could have called on the people to pose questions, scholars to offer opinions, and those with full senatorial right to pass judgment. And he could certainly have been much more explicit about the threat represented by Trump and the forces he is unleashing not just to his specific political legacy but to the liberal order and indeed to humanity itself.

The presidency does, to be sure, afford a privileged vantage point, and perhaps Barack Obama knows something which we do not which reasonably convinced him that this was not the right course. But if so, it is likely something which many of those very close to him also don’t know, or read very differently, given the reports of dissent within his inner circle regarding the presumption of normalcy which has governed his handling of transition. And Barack Obama must also think about what lies ahead. I have always believed that for this extraordinary man the Presidency was little more than a mid-career positioning move. He is a leader whose calling, while it includes the public exercise of external forum political authority, is by no means confined to it. Barack Obama will not just be a “citizen” and a former President. He is, first and foremost, a very senior organizer, exercising external forum political leadership from behind the scenes. He is, at least nominally, a legal scholar. And he may well have an authentic prophetic vocation. And he holds the Nobel Peace Prize, arguably the highest honor conferred by our civilization. He will speak and act not just as a citizen, but as a scholar, teacher, and organizer and as someone who comes as close to anyone on the planet to holding publically recognized senatorial right. And from the moment he leaves office he will be free to act and judge in accord with this right.

Barack Obama did not get the presidency he –and those of us who supported him– hoped for. It now looks like will not get the post-presidency he hoped for either –continuing to act as organizer-in-chief for the movement he has built while others take on the burdens of public leadership, deepening his spirituality and prophetic vision, returning to teach and judge publically only when he had taken the next steps in his own development, when there is something that needs to be said that only he can say, or when an authentic crisis demanded his presence. That crisis has arrived already, before he has left and is demanding of him something that he may not want to give. But that is the nature of leadership.

… when you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and to go wherever you wished. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go. (John 21:18)

This will be true for many of us, both hidden and manifest, who, in the days to come, will be called on to fight once again battles we thought had already been won, battles from which we are still and already broken and exhausted. For now, from among the hidden, I do for Barack what I did at the beginning of his presidency. I “stand behind this man, in the shadows, speaking truths he knows but may not utter.” Whatever its status under positive law, under the natural law the 2016 US Presidential election was not valid, but represents, rather, a coup by some of the darkest forces on the planet. This is true both because of the apparent manipulation of the election by the Russian state, elements in the FBI, and possibly others, and because the aims publicly advocated by those who claim to have won the election are contrary to the Common Good. We cannot say with certainty that Donald Trump intends fascism, but the possibility and the danger are real and must be named and resisted. Even if he does not intend fascism, his stated policy positions, in addition to being contradictory to the point of incoherence, represent a threat to the tentative efforts begun under President Obama to address such critical global challenges as climate change, the effects of globalization and technology on the working class, the rising relative costs of healthcare and higher education, the need for global governance to confront global challenges, and the danger that in coming to terms with the limits to the secular ideal in both its technocratic and humanistic forms, humanity will turn its back on the secularism’s real contributions to human spiritual and civilizational development –and most especially the liberal order which protects, however imperfectly, the cultivation of the rational autonomy which is the condition of any mature spirituality. It is the obligation of each and every human being on this planet to resist. And it is your obligation, Barack, to name this threat with us and to lead.  This is the only way for you to fulfill your highest vocation. I can only remind of you a truth I am certain you already know far better than I: it is only by going where we “do not wish to go” that we learn where we actually need to be.

We are here, with you, Barack, “in the depth of winter, when nothing but hope and virtue could endure.” We are here with you, Barack, seeking a path through the darkness, charting the next steps in the human civilizational project. Here, in the midst of the darkness, let us be Light. Here, in the midst that winter, let us speak Spring.

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The Eighteenth Brumaire of Donald Trump

Hegel remarks somewhere that all great world-historic facts and personages appear, so to speak, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce. Caussidière for Danton, Louis Blanc for Robespierre, the Montagne of 1848 to 1851[66] for the Montagne of 1793 to 1795, the nephew for the uncle. And the same caricature occurs in the circumstances of the second edition of the Eighteenth Brumaire.

Karl Marx. The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte


Neither Hegel nor Marx, of course, were familiar with such new dramatic modalities as “reality television,” “storyscaping,” or the “alternate reality game” or with the capacity of “fandoms” organized around dramatic franchises to exercise a hold over their members comparable to that of historic religious communities.  Over the course of the past 75 years the boundaries between art, advertising, and reality –including political reality– have gradually broken down, so that it is now not at all unusual for someone to follow an advertising campaign primarily because it tells a good story, only to turn around later and find that the product or service it was promoting has mysteriously become a constitutive dimension of their lives, or to engage in “real world” activity as a form of entertainment, only to find that reality, partly as a result of their activity, has suddenly changed.

It is in this context that we must analyze and interpret the events of 8 November 2016, a date which, it turns out, just happens to be the 18th Brumaire CCXXV of the French Revolutionary Calendar. Our historical points of reference, though, are no longer the Bonapartes –uncle and nephew– but rather the leaders of “original” fascism, Mussolini and Hitler, Franco and Salazar on the one hand and a reality television star and not especially successful real estate magnate whose very existence would probably have been impossible eighty years ago. And our dramatic points of reference are not tragedy and farce but rather the totalitarian propaganda film (think Triumph of the Will) and an alternate reality game gone awry.

Much of the analysis of this election has, thus far, treated it as a reflection of strategic political realities which, it is claimed, were hitherto ignored or at least vastly underestimated: the economic and cultural anxiety of the “white” working class, and of white working class men in particular, on the one hand and of millenials and other marginalized intelligentsia on the other.

While there are many versions of this “standard model,” they all claim, broadly speaking, that while Barack Obama offered both of these sectors at least some modest prospect of “change,” Hilary Clinton was perceived as the candidate of a globalist “establishment” centered on the finance, technology, and information sectors of Capital, allied with the privileged technogentry and infogentry (those elements of the intelligentsia still able to earn monopoly rents on innovation and skill), immigrants, and ethnic minorities that benefit from global Capital’s multiculturalism if not, perhaps, from the economy it has created. Some who had voted for Barack Obama (mostly “white” workers) actually supported Donald Trump; many more simply stayed home, resulting in the “Republican” victory on the 18th Brumaire.

Those familiar with my work will know that both my interest and my analytic and interpretive expertise are focused on the underlying longue durée global and grand strategic level of politics. But in this case the focus on what are ultimately mid-range strategic factors is fundamentally misleading. We are, in fact, in danger of fundamentally misunderstanding the configuration of forces in the conjuncture we are about to enter and making disastrous political mistakes.

First, the strategic factors cited by the standard model are nothing new. Displaced white workers who take out their marginalization by Global Capital through attacks on immigrants, African American and Latino workers, and women are nothing new. This is the constituency first mobilized by Richard Nixon in 1968 using the Southern Strategy, albeit for political aims which would now put him well to the left of most Democrats.  And anyone who followed the election campaign with any care had already, by 8 November, consumed volumes of analysis pointing out that the beast which the Republican Party awakened in its effort to find a new base after losing African Americans and the intelligentsia to the Democrats had in fact gotten out of control. Nor were any serious analysts unaware of the “Bernie or Bust” phenomenon. It is just that the consensus “net assessment” going into the election, based on both underlying demographics and the strength of the Democratic “ground game” and opposition research, pointed clearly to a Clinton victory. This never meant that white racism and infantile leftism could simply be ignored. We just didn’t expect them to be decisive in this election.

Second, the standard model draws fundamentally incorrect conclusions from its privileging of mid-range strategic over both a longue duree and operational factors. The implication is that in order to recover their majority, the Democrats need to offer more to displaced “white” workers and marginalized millenials. The problem is that, realistically, there is not much more to be offered. There is a long history of very well thought out attempts going back to the 1980s to chart a different, gentler, and less deindustrializing path through technological progress and globalization, focused on high technology infrastructure investments such as high speed rail and a greater focus on capital goods production for export. But while these efforts drew significant support both from the labor movement and from relevant sectors of Capital, they had essentially no electoral traction. While it is far too late to turn the tide on deindustrialization, infrastructure investments, high technology and otherwise, together with training to support the movement of at least some displaced workers to the new, high technology manufacturing sector which is emerging, form an integral part of the Democratic platform. These efforts have been consistently blocked by a Republican Congress. The more which Trump has promised, bringing back industries which have been dead for 35 years, and the specific way of life they supported, is a chimera.

The same is true of the promise of “free college” so popular among millenials. Are there compelling reasons to support universal, free access to higher education, liberal, professional, and technical? Absolutely. Liberal education, which cultivates free human beings and engaged citizens capable of taking and defending an independent position regarding questions of meaning, value, and public policy is a condition of authentic democracy. And given our technological trajectory, what human labor remains in demand requires increasingly complex skills. But for too long we have sold higher education as a means of upward mobility. This was always a distortion of the fundamental purposes of the university and an exaggeration of the economic benefits it conferred on graduates. Historically a university education facilitated, even if it did not “guarantee” a “middle class lifestyle” because it was the privilege of a few, who enjoyed monopoly rents on their skills. Expand access and thus the supply of the skills in question and the rents and the associated privilege go away. At this point only the most capable, best connected, and most fortunate graduates of the best and most prestigious universities enjoy even a shadow of the privilege a university education once conferred, and that, too, is fading.

Once again, the Democratic Party has already advanced credible, realistic proposals to curb the exploitation of the most vulnerable students by for profit schools, to promote free access to community colleges and, more recently, to address the problem of student debt more generally. Unfortunately, these moves have also been accompanied by an accountability regime which attempts to hold universities to a standard incompatible with their civilizational purpose –a question we have addressed elsewhere and will continue to engage. But how far should our prioritization of higher education, which still benefits a still relatively privileged segment of the population, go?  Given the fact that the transition to clean energy remains terribly underfunded, that as the demand for human labor declines the need for a basic income for the truly unemployable becomes more and more imperative, given the fact that health care is still out of reach for many, and given both the need for and the economic and social benefits of infrastructure investment, can we really make “free college” our highest priority? For those who point to the European example, it is important to point out that while most European countries subsidize higher education far more generously than the United States for those who gain access, most also restrict admission to students demonstrating a high order capacity for university level work, and track other students towards polytechnics and vocational training. Fully subsidized university education for a comparably narrow, highly capable and selected group in the United States would attract very little support.

The deeper strategic reality behind both “white” male working class and millennial-intelligentsia rage is that humanity has entered a very difficult transition. Technological progress really is, as Marx expected, gradually rendering human labor (working in order to survive) redundant and opening up the possibility of a future in which everyone can devote their lives to seeking wisdom, doing justice, and ripening Being. But the industrial stage in the development of technology, from which we have not yet really emerged, has come very close to rendering our planet uninhabitable. And historic socialism, which Marx thought could both accelerate the process of technological progress and give it a more human face, turns out to have been simply a strategy for primitive capitalist accumulation. Its historic function largely complete, historic socialism collapsed and no new movement towards authentic communism, understood as the full decommodification of labor power, has grown up in its place. The process of technological progress remains under the leadership of Capital, which functions more and more as an autonomous power distinct from even the historic bourgeoisie (which remains attached to various liberal, democratic, socialist, and national-populist variants of the humanistic project).

Marx, furthermore, profoundly underestimated the spiritual conditions for communism. If democracy requires universal liberal education, communism requires, if not that we all achieve sainthood, enlightenment, and sagehood, then at least a life consecrated to seeking perfection along one of humanity’s many spiritual paths (which in this context includes those which understand themselves as secular and humanistic). This is because even once technological progress renders labor, understood as working to survive, redundant, human beings, precisely because we are so godlike, and can “imagine greater,” even imagine infinite and necessary Being, will never be satisfied. Labor may give way to creative work, but scarcity can never be overcome. It is also necessary because taking joy in a life of creative labor, while it comes naturally to human beings, also requires cultivation, without which a frank confrontation with the redundancy of human labor could indeed lead many to fall into lives of meaninglessness and despair. The beginnings of such despair are, indeed, part of both “white” male working class and millenial rage, as they have been of all earlier fascisms and infantile leftisms.

Because of this our current historic trajectory remains towards deepening ecological crisis and towards the marginalization of ever broader sectors of the population. We are on a transhuman and even posthuman trajectory, in which Capital, as an autonomous power, cultivates the technological capacity for ever higher degrees of productivity without regard to the ecological, economic, political, or cultural requirements of human development. Whether or not this could terminate in a fully posthuman artificial intelligence or not remains a disputed question. With or without such an intelligence it would, I believe, be an evolutionary dead end.

The real question about The Eighteenth Brumaire of Donald Trump is what it means in the context of these broader realities. In this regard it is important to recognize that Trump’s victory was, in many ways, the accidental result of a game, even if this game was, in the end, a very serious one. His campaign, first of all, did not prioritize winning the presidency. Rather, it was directed at the repeated public demonstration that he could act outrageously with impunity, that he could, as he claimed at one point, “shoot someone on Fifth Avenue” and not lose significant support as a result. Where there was a choice between pursing this aim, even at the cost of some support, and adopting a more moderate, statesmanlike demeanor, Trump consistently chose the former path.

The accidental character of the Trump victory is also apparent from the fact that not only the Democratic Party, the press, and the political analysts on which they rely, but also the Trump campaign and the Republican Party clearly expected him to lose. Had he or anyone else of significance expected him to win, his transition would not be in such disarray.

Trump, finally, shows no evidence of actually wanting to be President, even now that he has apparently been elected. On the contrary he continues to expend much of the political capital he will need to govern by making outrageous statements, appointing political marginal to high posts, refusing to adhere to established ethics norms, and even saying that he might not move into the White House.

What happened on 8 November, was, rather, a confluence of relatively independent actors working for disparate aims which, perhaps purely by chance, perhaps as the result of a higher structural and systemic degree of causation, combined to produce an unexpected result. The first of these actors is the Republican Party which, ever since its embrace of the Southern Strategy has worked to divert the rage of displaced “white” and especially “white” male workers in a racist and misogynist direction, appealing to the ideological complexes we discussed in Beyond the Color Line: the Protestant Ethic and the distinction between “makers” and “takers” on the one hand and the Lockean Exception which imputes to African Americans the status of hereditary felons on the other. More recently, in response to demographic changes and the successful mobilization of minority voters by Barack Obama, the Republican Party has devoted itself to long term, systematic voter suppression. These suppression efforts were seconded and reinforced by the scare tactics employed by the Trump campaign.

The second actor in play was the Russian state, which, seeing itself as the vanguard of that most ironic of formations, a national conservative  (read fascistoid) International, engaged in cybernetic espionage in order to collect and reveal information which it believed would be harmful to Hilary Clinton and the Democratic Party. The Russian state was aided in this regard by elements on the international infantile left, especially Wikileaks. The resulting disinformation and distorted information further suppressed Democratic support. Whether or not there was direct interference in vote counts in Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin, as some have argued, remains to be seen.

The third actor in play was the criminal justice system acting through the Federal Bureau of Investigation. As we argued in Beyond the Color Line, the criminal justice system is a relatively autonomous structure which embodies one of the principal forms of racist ideology in the United States, namely the Lockean Exception, which argues that if slavery is allowable only as penalty for a crime, then slaves and their descendants must be hereditary criminals. This mechanism is of little obvious direct use to Capital, which no longer depends on slave labor. But it has also proven itself remarkably resistant to supervision by the democratic state, perhaps because as more and more of the population becomes redundant, Capital will need the criminal justice apparatus to keep order among an ever larger dispossessed mob. And so it was not surprising to see the FBI violate tradition by releasing “new information” regarding the Clinton email investigation shortly before the election, again further suppressing Democratic turnout.

The combined result of these actions has been to bring a fascistoid government (or perhaps loose coalition government which contains actually fascist, as well as other elements) to power, grouped around a “strong man,” a Bonaparte, who may or may not embrace a destiny as Fuher.  We have considered elsewhere in The Crisis of the Republican Party and the Danger of Fascism the underlying fascistoid elements in the Trump candidacy. For now it remains to explain just why fascism might not only find an audience in the present period, but actually return to power.

Historic fascism was, on the one hand, an attempt on the part of weaker rising imperial powers (Germany and Italy) or declining imperial powers (Spain and Portugal) to militarize their countries in order to secure or defend a colonial empire. But it was also an expression of sado-masochism and despair of those, both petty bourgeoisie and proletarian, left behind by the process of capitalist development. In the present period, as Global Capital takes on the character of an autonomous power, old imperialist bourgeoisies find themselves increasingly marginalized. Some are gradually, if also reluctantly and inconsistently turning to the left, hoping that technological progress will open up a transition to a society beyond industry and beyond labor in which humanity’s growing wealth will be more broadly shared –without their own privilege being called seriously into question. The future they envision, while not authentic communism, is one in which, supported by enormous technological progress, they have retired to a life of (very comfortable) philanthropy and hired the old proletariat as their program officers. The liberal order and the democratic state, which allow them to reign in and regulate an otherwise increasingly autonomous Capital, and to preserve a role for humanity and an ecosystem which makes human life still possible, are essential instruments in pursing this end. Others, however, especially in the more backward sectors of the economy, cling to their identity as capitalists and seek to undercut entirely, rather than merely redirecting, the technological and social processes which are underway. The national conservative, populist, racist, and patriarchal sentiments of displaced workers provide them with a way of doing this.

It is impossible to say with certainty at this point in time, and at a considerable distance from the main actors, whether or not significant elements in the Trump coalition actually intend to create something like a new fascism, or to otherwise seriously damage the liberal and democratic order. But they have already had the effect of pulling the system in this direction. This is especially alarming considering the fact that such tendencies are also apparent not only in Europe (including, especially Russia) but also in India and China, which have both moved in a more narrowly nationalistic and authoritarian direction in recent years. Islamic fundamentalism, of course, as well as many of the more secular nationalisms it contests (such as Baathism), are also in this broad camp. While petroleum prices are currently very low (itself, no doubt, a source of rage for the extractive bourgeoisie), as we reach and pass peak oil, the monopoly rents this sector can command, and thus its ability to build and project power culturally, politically, and militarily, will increase enormously.

The greatest danger, though, is not that backward elements in the bourgeoisie will leverage antiglobalism to create a new kind of fascism. The underlying technological trends are too powerful for such a regime, however destructive, to prevail in the long run. What concerns me, rather, is that Capital itself, understood as an autonomous power independent of any sector of the bourgeoisie, might leverage a new fascism to undercut what might otherwise be an emerging alliance of the vast majority of humanity dedicated to conserving the integrity of an ecosystem which can support human life and to building a human future beyond labor, a future in which human beings would no longer be treated as batteries and in which everyone could seek wisdom, do justice, and ripen Being. If the decisive actor in this election was not some alliance of the backward sectors of the bourgeoisie with fascistoid intellectuals (the alt-right) and displaced “white” male workers, but rather Capital itself … well that would explain why the outcome was so unexpected. The Right, for good reason, honestly believed itself to be playing a game in which the rules were rigged against it -not because of some dark conspiracy, but because of the enormous power of underlying, ultimately progressive technological and social trends. Somewhere along the way, it seems, the rules of the game were re-written and a handful of effective gambits by the Right were able to outmatch the overwhelming strategic and operational superiority of the Center Left. Reality itself was altered by actors the “lead” among whom, at least, seemed –and still seems– to be doing nothing more than playing.

Whether the apparent electoral victory of Donald Trump was result of a purely accidental confluence of ultimately secondary actors or the product of a higher system and structural causation, and whether anyone besides a few alt-right advisors actually intend fascism, the response must be a broad popular front against fascism. We must unite not only the working classes and the petty bourgeoisie, men and women, so-called “whites” and oppressed minorities, but also the very significant progressive sectors of the bourgeoisie to resist at every turn the normalization of what is objectively an assault on the liberal order and the democratic state. Liberalism and democracy are not sufficient to defeat global Capital, but they are necessary and it is in the struggle to defend them that the contours of what else is required will become clear.

The new dramatic forms which have displaced tragedy and farce are all about not merely offering a new interpretation of reality, but about actually redefining it. This is what Trump’s victory, whoever or whatever has worked it, is all about. But we are, in the end, in a multiplayer game. We know the source code. And we have access to the server. It is time to rewrite the rules and defeat not just this particular “Boss” but the AI which, it seems, may have generated him.

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Beyond the Color Line: Rethinking Ethnicity, Empire, and Capital

This is not yet an analysis of the catastrophic election victory of Donald Trump in the US 2016 election. That will be forthcoming, hopefully within a week. But I think it represents an important contribution to understanding what happened in the election which was, at least in significant measure, about identity and a rejection of globalism and cosmopolitanism. I welcome reactions to what is still very much a work in progress. 

Eight years ago the election of Barak Obama as President of the United States marked the extraordinary progress the United States has made in transcending its history of racism. There is, I would suggest, no European country which would elect a person of African descent –or indeed anyone belonging to an historically colonized people– as head of state and/or head of government.

Today we are compelled to face the limits to that progress. Those limitations are reflected not only in persistent economic disparities but also in a criminal justice system which effectively criminalizes African American identity and in efforts to use the immigration system to extend that criminality to those of Latin American descent and to Muslims regardless of their origin. These structural factors are, in turn, legitimated by hegemonic ideological formations which distinguish sharply between “makers” and “takers” and between “legals” and “illegals.” While the United States has, in fact, established a more honest relationship with the indigenous peoples of the continent, treating them as conquered “domestic dependent nations” (United States Supreme Court 1831), this has not really facilitated authentic liberation and human development, as indigenous communities are forced, in practice,  to choose between a sovereignty (however limited) which allows the conservation of elements of their traditional way of life, but only at the expense of economic and social marginality, and fuller social participation at the cost of assimilation.

The disproportionate impact of ethnic stratification on those of African and indigenous American (and therefore Latino) descent has, unfortunately led to a tendency to assume that racism is, in fact, about something called “race,” whether this is regarded as a biological reality, a pure social construct, or something in between. This way of formulating the problem, however, has the effect not only of missing the impact of enduring racism on those classed as “culturally superior (Chua and Rebenfeld 2014)” or “model” minorities (Freedman 2005, Li and Wang 2008) as well as on Euro-Americans who have had their history and authentic identity erased, but of reinforcing the socially constructed but now very deeply rooted “white” American identity which is the principal means by which racism and ethnic oppression reproduce themselves. It is quite impossible to understand the operation of racism globally or the fascistoid white supremacist/white nationalist movement which has both facilitated and profited from the successful campaign of Donald Trump for the Presidency of the United States apart from these phenomena,.

It is in this context we return to the fundamental questions of the nature of racism and, more broadly, of the nature of ethnicity and its articulation with Capital and Empire. Most historic treatments of racism have taken one of three approaches. Liberal theories have tended to regard racism as a relic of fundamentally pre-capitalist forms of oppression, such as caste, which will be fully transcended once the liberal ideal is realized, something which is ordinarily regarded as fully compatible with capitalism. This view is shared by those historical materialists who regard the struggle against racism as a liberal democratic rather than socialist task. Some, such as William Julius Wilson (Wilson 1974), have even argued that racism has already been largely transcended and that what we are now contending with is fundamentally its economic legacy, a legacy which is best analyzed using the category of class rather than of race. The communist movement has, on the contrary argued that racism is integral to the capitalist project and has tended to see it as an instance of the broader reality of colonialism and imperialism, something which can be transcended only through a national liberation struggle which recognizes the right of oppressed peoples within as well as outside the current boundaries of the United States to determine their own destiny specifically as nations (Haywood 1948). These national liberation struggles, while liberal and democratic in character, cannot be carried out under the leadership of the bourgeoisie, whose leadership has been compromised by the inherently imperialist character of the Capital by which it is constituted.  Those within oppressed minority communities themselves, finally, have criticized both approaches as reductionist and have argued that racism is a social formation sui generis, something which cannot be understood adequately using the categories of liberal, democratic, or socialist theory (du Bois 1903).

We will argue that all three approaches are fundamentally inadequate. Liberal theories are quite correct in citing a caste-like element to racism, but err in arguing that this will dissolve as the liberal order advances. Socialist theory, on the other hand, is quite correct that modern racism is intimately bound up with the capitalist project, and more specifically with the conquests which were the condition for primitive capitalist accumulation. But there are grave questions about the integrity and viability of the nation state as a modality of liberation and human development. And clearly the wave of national liberation movements which defined global politics in the last century has been defeated, effectively closing off this trajectory.  Making racism a reality sui generis, finally, implicitly accepts race itself as real, reinforcing the “white” identity which is integral to the larger racist ideological complex –and does so at a time when the deconstruction of this identity is, furthermore,  at long last becoming possible.

We will argue instead that ethnicity is neither something essential nor a pure social construct, but rather a distinct way, more specific than that represented by a civilization, of being human. Ethnicity is, in other words, a social construct, but one rooted in and anchored to specific material conditions, shaped through a definite history, and ordered to a (shared, universal) teleological end –that of Ripening Being. Because human history is, among other things, a history of conquests, it is also a history of conflict between peoples and their stratification within various imperial formations. This stratification is, however, sometimes more rigid and sometimes less so and is articulated with class and ideological, cultural and religious contradictions in diverse and complex ways. Race is just one of the many constructs secondary to both class and ethnicity which are invoked in this process and means different things at different place and different points in history.

The specific form which racism takes in the present period is the product both of a history of conquest –specifically the European Conquests of the Americas, Africa, and Asia which made possible the primitive accumulation which constituted Capital—and of the operation of specific ideological complexes which give this stratification meaning in relation to the broader social project of Capital, constituting a kind of global varna system which is partly but not completely racialized. But these conquests have their own prehistory in the Germanic migrations which brought an end to Roman hegemony in Europe and created European Christendom. The result is a structure which at once predates and is in some measure constitutive of Capital, and which cannot therefore be transcended exclusively by means of class struggle, but which is very far from being a reality sui generis and which is not, ultimately, about race.

We begin by outlining a general theory of ethnicity. We will then analyze the ways in which ethnicity has been articulated with the Germanic migrations, the European Conquests, the primitive accumulation of Capital and the ideological complexes which have given capitalism meaning. We will conclude by analyzing changes in the global nature and geopolitical structure of Capital which suggest significant realignment in the global varna system and which offer a framework for interpreting and acting on the current situation.


Theories of Racism, Ethnicity, and National Identity

There are, broadly speaking, three principal approaches to the problem of identity:

  • essentialism, which regards identities as objectively real and inherent in both the groups to which it pertains and their individual members,
  • pure social constructionism, which regards identities as the product of lines of difference which can be and are drawn and redrawn in such a way as to be entirely fluid and without any foundational significance morally or politically,
  • historicism, which regards identity as ultimately a social construct, but more specifically as the product of foundational events which give it a such stability as to make it objectively real. We will identify two subtypes here, idealist and materialist.

We will show that all three of these approaches are inadequate because they fail to take into account the ordering of the realities they acknowledge to a common higher end –that of Being as Such—but along distinct pathways which lead to authentically different, but all valuable, ways of being human.



By an essentialist approach to ethnicity we mean any theory which regards ethnic identity as fixed and defined by something largely independent of social and historical transformation. Such an understanding of ethnicity is in fact a relatively new idea and has little to do with the essentialism often ascribed incorrectly to the dialectical tradition from Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle on which, as I have argued elsewhere (Mansueto 2010a) has more to do with the ordering of systems to transcendental ends in the context of definite material conditions, than with the concept of essence as such, which functions simply as a mediating term. Ancient authors tended to put more emphasis on geography (Aristotle c330 BCE/1912) or descent by way of family, lineage, clan and tribe (typical of accounts in the Hebrew Scriptures), an approach which is better classified as historicist. Essentialist theories of ethnicity have, generally, focused on biology, including physical anthropology and genetics (Barkan 1992, Agustein 1996, Banton 1998), language (von Humboldt in Trabant 2000), some concept of the collective unconscious (Jung 1936/1996; Noll 1994, 1997), or simply on an irrational intuition regarding identity cf Lukacs 1953/1980 on NAZI racism).

The most important contemporary example of a biological approach to ethnicity is the “human biodiversity” tendency within the emerging Alt-Right (Frost 2015, Fuerst 2015). Frost, for example, argues that while genetic diversity within populations is indeed greater than that between populations that the two types of diversity are different. Genetic variation within populations is largely random and meaningless and not susceptible to pressure for selection. Variation between populations, on the other hand, corresponds to geographical and thus ecological differences and reflects selection pressures and thus, at least potentially, different degrees of “fitness” for survival (albeit relative to specific conditions).

This is, in itself, at least a testable assertion. But Frost presents no real evidence to support it.  On the contrary, he moves immediately to what is essentially an ad hominem argument: that the thesis has not been given the reception it deserves largely because it is seen as compromising the struggle against racism. This war, he argues, was won long ago and antiracism has taken on a new function a form of ideological legitimation for a globalism which is contributing to relative economic decline in Europe and North America. His solution –also not argued: anti-immigration legislation and the election of antiglobalist parties.

This is not science –or even effort to reopen a debate that has been closed for compelling reasons, some of which (and in fact the most compelling of which), are political. It is an opportunistic attempt to exploit the fact that the precise role of genetics in shaping human behavior remains ambiguous to advance a very specific political agenda which has nothing to do with genetics as a science.  Genes code not for complex sociocultural patterns or even well-defined biological phenotypes, but for proteins. The process by which genetic codes are expressed in individual or species typical phenotypes is very poorly understood, and the relationship between such phenotypes and the human psyche and human society are tenuous at the very best. And there is growing evidence that the physical, biological, and social environment does, in fact, affect gene expression and ultimately the genome itself (Moore 2015).

Finally, advocates of “human biodiversity” should be careful about rejecting theories just because they serve (perhaps problematic) political purposes. The evolutionary theory on which their arguments are based is itself quite vulnerable on this front. Indeed, while there are profound reasons to defend evolutionary theory generally from attacks by creationists (biological evolution is demonstrated by the fossil record; creationism is a constitutive dimension of a univocal metaphysics and a theology of divine sovereignty which are hostile to human development, spiritual and civilizational) there are equally profound reasons to criticize Darwinism and Neo-Darwinism as a reflex of the emerging market economies, a simplistic application to biological evolution of an economic theory which was as –and remains–  as much ideology as science (Mansueto 2012).

Linguistic essentialism derives most especially from the work of Alexander von Humboldt (von Humboldt 1836/1999), who argued that language reflects the underlying worldview of a people and that highly inflected languages, such as those of the Indo-European family, are fundamentally superior to others because they make it possible theorize complex relationships more adequately. In this regard, he prefigures the so-called Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, which claims that language shapes thought  –though later advocates were more focused on conserving thought forms embodied in endangered languages than in rank ordering languages based on their complexity. This thesis remains the focus of intense debate, and is generally out of favor in the Anglo-American world, and probably a minority view elsewhere. But whatever one may think of the thesis itself, it is not fully adequate as a theory of ethnicity. This is because it is not at all unusual for cultural patterns to be shared among speakers of very different languages: the Puebloans of Southwestern North America, for example, or the various cultures of Southeast Asia.

We find yet another form of ethnic essentialism in analytic psychology. According to Jung each race or people has its own distinctive collective unconscious, which he regarded as biologically based though not in a way he could articulate in the language of secular biological science (Jung 1936/1996; Noll 1994, 1997). Even more so than with von Humboldt, who articulated a rising rather than defensive German nationalism, Jung’s theory is associated with a racist political agenda, in this case one tied directly to NAZI anti-Semitism. From a theoretical vantage point it is inadequate for the simple reason that apart from some specification of what the collective unconscious is, it remains simply its contents and the identification of ethnic or racially specific forms no more than an arbitrary –or politically motivated–  taxonomy.

Ultimately the inability to identify an essence of peoplehood resulted, among those whose political agenda requires such a concept, in pure irrationalism. What we might call spiritual essentialism is rooted the objective idealism and romantic reaction which emerged out of the collapse of the Hegelian synthesis after 1848. Specifically, it is based on the idea that first principles, while not really accessible to discursive reason, whether formal, critical, transcendental, or dialectical, are accessible to artistic, intellectual, or religious intuition. As Gyorgy Lukacs, points out in The Destruction of Reason (Lukacs 1953/1980) NAZI theorists were quite aware of the fact that there is no foundation for the concept of race in biological science, but argued that one true Aryan knows another intuitively, and that it was on this basis, for example, that the short, dark haired Adolf Hitler could be recognized as a true Aryan in spite of his phenotype. But a similar idea seems to be lie behind certain variants of Afrocentrism such as that represented by Molefe Kete Asante (Asante 1908, 2007, 2013), though the line between spiritual essentialism and semifoundationalism is often a fine one with respect to both Afrocentric and Raza Cosmica ideologies such as that advanced by Jose Maria Vasconcellos (Vasconcellos 1925), which pay more attention to historical processes of ethnogenesis.

The point is not that all of these essentialisms are morally or politically equivalent. There is a difference between an essentialism which is mobilized to legitimate Empire or even genocide and one which, while it may be mistaken in certain respects, is leveraged to resist oppression. But they share a common intellectual foundation and one which is weak and undeveloped at best. The result of both approaches is to reinforce socially constructed white identities which mobilize the European and Euro-American working classes to defend their position of privilege against “people of color” who aim not so much to transcend structures of privilege but to claim their own superiority or at least to claim a share in the privilege formerly enjoyed by so-called whites.


Planes of Difference in Which Everything is the Same

The second approach to identity is a pure social constructionism (Hobsbawm and Ranger 1983). According to this view race, ethnicity, nationality –indeed all dimensions of social identity– are pure social constructions which can be continually defined and redefined. This approach is rooted in structuralist and poststructuralist theory which claims that all meaning is defined by and that Being is difference. Words, for example, are defined in relation to and only in relation to each other and thus have no intrinsic reference outside of the internal semantic and grammatical structure of the language.  Things exist only insofar as they differ from and thus affect each other. This is, in turn rooted in a univocal doctrine of Being in which everything exists in the same sense –in this case by differing from other things, and there is no Being as such (Deleuze 1953/2004, 1968/1994).

The attraction of this approach is that it rejects the existence of any stable identity around which an oppressive political subject might be constituted. Indeed, it points us towards the importance of deconstructing such subjects, a point to which we will return shortly. But it also presents some serious problems. We have considered the philosophical problems of a univocal doctrine of Being elsewhere (Mansueto 2010b, 2016). Here we focus on some of the historical and sociological issues.

In the context of the debate around ethnicity the trend is especially associated with the work of Benedict Anderson (Anderson 1991) and Arjun Appadurai (Appadurai 1991). Anderson, for example, stresses the fact that nation states were, from the beginning, “imagined” communities, based on shared, socially constructed and mediated systems of beliefs and values rather than on actual face to face interaction. Appadurai takes a similar approach to the identities constituted by globalized cultural flows. The formation of a global market in capital and labor detaches peoples from particular places, resulting in “deterritorialization,” but also in movements for “reterritorialization,” literal and figurative, among which Islamic fundamentalism figures prominently, situating itself problematically between the global ideal of a universal “commanding right and forbidding wrong” and the place-historical character of Dar-al-Islam as a geopolitical formation.

The focus in this approach is on the constitution and reconstitution of identities in the context of a global play of forces. On the one hand, as we noted, it leaves all claims to ethnic superiority without foundation. At the same time, it also means that there is no privileged vantage point from which to contest attempts to construct such identities. The historic vacuity of efforts by a Donald Trump to build power on the basis of a promise to “make America great again” is irrelevant. Trump’s America is as real as he and his followers can make it. At the same time, pure social constructionism does nothing to safeguard subaltern identities from appropriation by outsiders. While there clearly are ways in which someone with no African American ancestry could legitimately come to identify with certain aspects of African American culture, the African American community was rightly outraged by attempt of a “white” woman in Spokane to put herself forward as African American in the Dolezal case (Walters 2015).

The net result of radical social constructionism is to render all difference ultimately irrelevant, because we are all, in the end, simply elements in a system of binary oppositions, no different from one another than the elements in any other formal mathematical system.

This is a very poor account of identity for the simple reason that it fails to account for the resilience resilience in the face of attempts to liquidate them. Indeed, what the advocates of the human biodiversity thesis claim about antiracism generally is, in fact, true of pure social constructionism. Global Capital, to the extent that it still needs human beings at all, needs only those who can assume whatever identity it requires of them, and then only for the length of time that assumption of identity is required. This is not a theoretical foundation for transcending racism and ethnic and national oppression, but for generalizing the marketing personality (Fromm 1947) which is typical of advanced capitalism.  And resistance to the liquidation of ethnic identities is, in fact, a form of resistance to Global Capital. The question is whether that resistance serves something higher, or simply buttresses local instances of Capital rooted in especially extractive and exploitative forms of production and thus even more inimical to human spiritual and civilizational development.



The third approach to the problem of ethnic identity is what we will call historicism. The underlying idea here is simply that ethnic identities, while social products, emerge and are transformed over relatively long periods of time and thus have a stability that makes pure social constructionism untenable. Ethnic identities, while not fixed essences, function as relatively stable realities which are not subject to unlimited manipulation. Here we identify two subtypes, one idealist and one materialist.

Heideggerian Semifoundationalist Populism

The idealist variant of historicism is reflected in contemporary debates around race and ethnicity most especially in what Michael Miller (Miller 2013) has called the Heideggerian Right. Heidegger rejects, of course, any sort of essentialism as part of the tradition of “ontotheology” which, he argues, focused the (Latin) West on understanding the world in order to control it technologically and politically. Instead, he argues that each people is constituted by a distinct and incommensurate unveiling of Being, which gives rise to its “gods” and its forms of life.  But Miller notes a sharp difference in the way in which Heidegger himself, together with his right wing interpreters and the Heideggerian (deconstructionist) Left read this doctrine. While the Left, focuses on respect for difference, and the Center Left –represented, for example, by Weber (Weber 1921/1968) on the interpretive understanding of diverse ways of Being, for the Right the focus is on the founding events in which a people finds its “god.” It was precisely the hope that the rise of the Third Reich might be such a new foundational event for Germany, which would represent a turn away from Latin ontotheology and what he regarded as its agenda of technopolitical control[1], which led him to support the NAZI party. Caution regarding this approach is thus not merely warranted but mandatory. Miller characterizes Heidegger’s position as “semifoundationalist.”

We should point out, however, that it is not only the birth of genocidal, empire-building regimes which have been owned as founding events by various peoples. Liberation struggles, from the Exodus to the democratic and socialist revolutions and national liberation struggles of the secular era can also be theorized and popularly interpreted in this way. Indeed, the Raza Cosmica doctrine of José Maria Vasconcellos regards both conquest (Aztec and Spanish) and liberation (especially the Revolution of 1910) as constitutive events of the new, mestizo Mexican people.

Clearly semifoundationalist approaches to ethnicity have stronger explanatory power than either essentialism or pure social constructivism and they are better supported by the historical evidence. We do, in fact, witness peoples coming into being and passing out of being as historical events unfold, without, for all that, being defined simply by their differences from other peoples. And in the hands of Weber, Gadamer (Gadamer 1960/2004), or Geertz (Geertz 1973) this approach can point towards a focus on the interpretive understanding of the other which facilitates dialogue and collaboration. This approach does, furthermore give us a bit of distance from the simplistic notion that race is about an ineluctable conflict between “whites” and “people of color.” It forces to ask how these categories were constituted and delivers an answer which suggests that we might want to transcend them. “People of color” were the principal, but as we will argue by no means the only objects of the process of conquest and dispossession which constituted Capital and its Empire; “whites” are those who, without necessarily sharing in Capital, occupy a relatively privileged status in the sense of being exempt from the most exploitative and degrading forms of oppression, such as slavery, forced labor or encomienda, vulnerability to extrajudicial killings, etc. This is a better starting place for understanding how racism works than either essentialism or social constructivism.

But semifoundationalism presents two closely related challenges. First, from a scientific vantage point, it offers no explanation for the emergence of particular ethnic identities. Indeed, peoples would seem to simply be presented with their identities as, in effect, a revelation and have no role in charting their own course through history. This means that, second, there is no criterion, either material or spiritual, by which the way in which a people, or a section thereof, understands its identity, can be judged. Thus Heidegger’s theory left him no critical distance from the NAZI party when it turned out to be a uniquely intense expression of the very agenda of technopolitical control he claimed to despise. And the fact that the founding event of a people might be liberating does not mean that all subsequent interpretations of that identity will also be liberating. On the contrary, the history of revolutions is as much a history of the betrayal as of the realization of founding ideals, and even when there is no question of betrayal, ideals require ongoing interpretation in the light of changing historical conditions. This suggests that we need to look further for an adequate theory of ethnic identity.


Historical Materialism

It is here that the historical materialist theory of the nation as developed by Joseph Stalin and revised by Samir Amin is helpful. Within the context of historical materialism, the problem of ethnic identity arises in the context of the “national question,” and of the role of nation states as both agents of liberal and democratic liberation and of imperialist oppression, something which raises from the beginning the question of how ethnicity relates to Capital and Empire. It is, however, possible to extract from historical materialist theories of national identity a theory of ethnic identity as something distinct. For Stalin (Stalin 1913/1993) a nation is any group sharing a common territory, language, culture, history, and market. The role of this final element is associated with the capacity of a people to determine its own identity. Peoples lacking a unified national market, or at least the capacity to develop one, were deemed by Stalin to be incapable of self-determination and thus could not reasonably aspire to national independence. They are thus classed as ethnic groups rather than nations.

This theory assumed, of course, that all countries developed along a more or less common pathway –towards industrialization and capitalist development, including the formation of a domestic market for manufactured goods. This process might be hindered by colonialism but it would not be fundamentally transformed. The weakness of national bourgeoisies in colonized countries created an opportunity for communists to lead the national liberation struggle, but the principal aim of colonized peoples remained national self-determination. It is this understanding of the national question which led the Soviet Union in the period following the Second World War to support what they regarded as national bourgeois movements for national liberation, such as the Mexican Partido Revolucionario Institucional, Arab Nationalism and Baathism, or the Indian National Congress, which fell short of fully socialist aims, and to reject armed struggle and socialism in most the Third World. The theory also served to ground Soviet and Chinese doctrines which limited the autonomy of ethnic minorities deemed to lack the material conditions for national self-determination and to create a system of nominally autonomous nation states which masked the enduring reality of Russian imperial rule.

The emergence of dependency theory Amin (Amin 1978/1980), which regarded imperialism as in fact constitutive of Capital called this approach into question. National liberation movements, especially from the late 1960s on increasingly questioned the existence of a national bourgeoisie and saw socialism –and not just the leadership of the Communist Party—as itself as the condition for national liberation. Dependency and world systems theorists such as Amin stress the common history of a struggle for national liberation in the formation of national identity, as opposed to the, which makes a nation. On the one hand, this validated the experience and aspirations of peoples whose material conditions made anything like a “normal,” i.e. European pattern of capitalist development impossible to nonetheless aspire to self-determination. But it also pushed socialist approaches to the national question back towards populist semifoundationalism. This is because the ideal of national liberation and socialism, backed by a strong popular movement (generally based in the peasantry and pursuing a strategy of prolonged popular war) was regarded as constitutive of a national and subject and a basis on which to begin the process of socialist construction, the presence or absence of material conditions notwithstanding.

This trend was able to achieve some surprising victories during the 1970s and 1980s, but with the collapse of the Soviet Union it quickly became clear that these were largely an artifact of strategic reserve support from the Soviet Union, offered on the basis of geopolitical interests and in spite of political differences, and did not reflect the authentic global balance of power. By 1991 the era of socialist national liberation struggles was over.

Mao avoided voluntarism during the course of the national liberation struggle and the early stages of socialist construction. But the developing conviction, beginning in the late 1950’s and peaking in the later stages of the Cultural Revolution that the national bourgeoisie and even the petty bourgeoisie constituted a basis for a capitalist restoration which had to be resisted through vigorous ideological struggle (Chang 1975, Yao 1975)  represented an even more radical turn in the same direction. The result was a voluntarism which led to catastrophic attempts at delinking from the global market and at the imposition of communist relations of production for which neither the material nor the spiritual conditions existed. The result was a terrible wave of anticivilizational violence, genocide in Cambodia, and the creation of perverse socialist sacral monarchy in North Korea.

Clearly historical materialism, while it represents an advance over semifoundationalism, still lacks a fully adequate way of theorizing ethnic identity. Thus the need for further exploration.


An Alternative

We approach this problem from the vantage point of the broader social theory we have articulated in Religion and Dialectics, The Death of Secular Messianisms, and The Ways of Wisdom (Mansueto 2002, 2010, 2016). Human societies represent specific attempts on the part of a species with particular evolutionary adaptations –big brains and dexterous hands—to seek Being under definite material conditions (i.e. on a specific planet, in a particular ecosystem or ecosystems), using specific structures (technologies, economic structures, political systems, cultures, etc.). A complete taxonomy of human societies includes multiple levels. There are meta-civilizational projects, such as the primal or archaic, the sacral monarchic, the axial, and the secular. There are specific civilizations. And then there are, within the context of specific civilizational projects, particular peoples.

A people, then, is a specific way of being human. This approach to the problem of ethnicity conserves a great deal of both the semifoundationalist and historical materialist approaches. Peoples are the product of long histories which unfold in one or many lands, using changing technologies, economies, and polities, and which give rise to particular languages and cultures which themselves change over time. And they do, indeed, represent specific ways of Being. But they are not a “self-disclosure” of Being, as Heidegger and the Heideggerian Right would have it, so much as emergent forms of Being.  Peoples are as real as anything in the phenomenal world. Ethnic identity cannot simply be created out of thin air or adopted on a whim. It emerges over centuries or even millennia and assimilation to a new identity is always a work in progress which, if it happens on any large scale, involves change in the majority as well as minority identities. But for this reason ethnicity is not an absolute. Ethnic identities are not utterly incommunicable or incomprehensible to each other. They are always and only changing forms of a common humanity, based on a shared common home, this Earth, a shared biology, and a shared goal, which is nothing less than the power of Being as such.

Lineage, heredity, and biological phenotype in particular can, to be sure, become part of ethnic identity. Someone who does not look African American or Chinese is unlikely to be fully accepted –or oppressed—as African American or Chinese. But phenotype does not make ethnicity and meaningful if partial assimilation is possible even for those who are phenoatypical among the ethnos to which they assimilate. Phenotype, especially in combination with other cultural factors, can also, often be misread.

The question remains, of course, how ethnicity, whether racialized or not, becomes a basis for oppression and resistance. It is to this question that we now turn.



Ethnicity, Capital, and Empire


There have, historically, been two principal approaches to the problem of the articulation between ethnicity, Capital and Empire. The first of these is the “caste/class” theory, which draws on Weber’s distinction between ascribed and acquired status. The theory argues that African Americans in particular, though to some significant extent other oppressed ethnic minorities as well, were effectively subaltern castes in the antebellum United States. Being born Black meant being a slave and most often being deployed in plantation agriculture. The most important recent appropriation of the theory, William Julius Wilson’s The Declining Significance of Race (Wilson 1974) argues that this began to change after the Civil War, but that “white” workers saw African Americans as potential competitors and thus allied themselves with Southern planters in maintaining as much of the old system as possible. The Civil Rights movement, however, effectively ended the old caste system and, with affirmative action, even established some legal preferences, however modest, for historically oppressed minorities. This does not mean that racism has disappeared, but for Wilson it is no longer the principal problem facing African American and other minority communities. Rather, these communities suffer most from the economic after effects of the old caste system and will find authentic liberation, empowerment, and economic development only with significant resource transfers which provide the access to Capital necessary to prosper.

This theory has some merit. Among other things it explains why affirmative action, while creating a flourishing African American and Latino middle class, has done so little to alleviate poverty in these communities. Affirmative action doesn’t help if you don’t have the education and capital to take advantage of it. But the theory is, at a deeper level, profoundly flawed. On the one hand, it fails take into account the existence –or analyze the oppression of—free African American communities and even of some Hispano landed elites and quasi-aristocracies in Tejas, Nuevo Santander, Nuevo Mexico, and California. On the other hand, it misses entirely the enduring oppression faced even by very prosperous African Americans and Latinos, especially at the hands of the criminal justice system.  Indeed, we will demonstrate shortly that there is, in fact, a “caste” dimension to racism and related forms of ethnic oppression in the United States and globally which is very far from having been eradicated, though it is also more complex and subtle than a simple color line.


The Black, Chicano, and other National Theses

The second principal approach to the relationship between race, ethnicity, and capital in the US is the national thesis or what is sometimes called the internal colonialism thesis. According to this view oppressed minorities, whatever they were before the European conquests and capitalist developments have emerged as oppressed nations and internal colonies with the right to self-determination up to and including the right to secession.

This approach has two roots. It is, on the one hand, the product of culturally oriented nationalisms loosely grounded in semifoundationalist theories such as those of José Maria Vasconcellos and Marcus Garvey. The latter, in turn, appears to trace its roots to the formation of a Pan African identity by and among African Methodist Episcopal missionaries to African in the nineteenth century (Wilmore 1998). It is also, however, a product of the application of Stalin’s theory of nationality by the Communist Party in the United States. According to this view the struggle against racism was simply part of the broader struggle for national liberation which became the principal way in which Communist Parties came to power in the twentieth century.  Unlike Pan Africanists, however, the CPUSA argued that after Reconstruction African Americans created a new nation, with its own territory, language, culture, and history in the Black Belt South. Similar nations were regarded as having emerged in the Chicano Southwest (Azatlan) and in those parts of the West with significant American Indian presence.

The Pan African and Raza Cosmica forms of the thesis remain influential among African American and Latino intellectuals, who find some constituency in their broader communities for Pan African and Raza identities. But advocates of Pan Africanism struggle with the sharp differences between the experience of Africans, African Americans, and African immigrants, just as advocates of Raza ideologies struggle with the sharp differences between those whose history is rooted in the Mexican meztizaje and more specifically its interpretation over the course of the Revolution of 1910 and those who, whether descendants of old Tejano, Nuevo Santander (Rio Grande Valley), Nuevo Mexico, or California families or immigrants from other parts of Latin America who do not share this specific experience and the identity it has created.

The Black and Chicano Nation theses have had an even more challenging history. While advocates of this thesis were quite clear that secession was a right, not a necessity, the idea that inheriting the economically most backward parts of the country would constitute adequate compensation for slavery, genocide, and other forms of racial and ethnic oppression always lacked credibility. And the migration of African Americans and Indians to the cities of the North and the complex transformation of long-standing Chicano communities by Mexican immigration ultimately rendered this approach to racism difficult to prosecute in its more radical forms. It survived and survives as a focus on minority electoral empowerment and local control over schools, police, etc.


Ethnicity and Class, Historically and in the Present Period

Before Capital

The relationship between ethnicity and Empire is longstanding. Broadly speaking, it is possible to identify three stages in the development of this relationship. The first is the sacral monarchic stage (3000-1000 BCE), during which the development of bronze technology allowed warlords to move beyond raiding and lay large numbers of villages under tribute, forcing them to pay rents, taxes, and/or forced labor in order to avoid annihilation or at least continuous harassment. Some of the resulting polities were little more than city states with an extended hinterland. Others embraced much or all of large river valleys, such as the Nile, the Tigris and Euphrates, and the Huang He. While these warlords certainly developed cultural forms –specifically the divinization of their rulers— which legitimated their exploitation and domination, and while their reach often extended beyond the limits of their own ethnos to include subject tribes and villages with different languages, histories, and cultures, exploitation was not on the basis of ethnicity. Rather, ethnic oppression was a historically contingent product of empire building.

The crisis of the Late Bronze Age (1200-1000BCE), during which these sacral monarchies began to crumble under their own weight, and the advent of iron technology around 1000 BCE, briefly allowed some peasant communities, such as Ancient Israel, to throw off imperial domination. Those that did, because they defined a new way of being human, also developed as distinct peoples. In other cases subject peoples, such as the Zhou, simply overthrew particularly oppressive empires (the Shang) and replaced them with less oppressive structures or, as in Greece, relatively weak Bronze Age urban centers collapsed entirely and new polities emerged over a period of hundreds of years on the basis of iron technology, specialized agriculture, and petty commodity production. In still other regions, such as India, Bronze Age societies which do not appear to fully fit the sacral monarchic pattern, such as the Indus Valley civilization, collapsed or declined and new iron age peoples, the Indo-Aryans, moved into the region and set in motion a second wave of urbanization which shared elements of both the more democratic Hellenic pattern and of sacral monarchy.

Eventually the formation of the Silk Road trade network catalyzed the emergence of a second wave of Empires, this time based on iron weapons, which spanned far larger territories. Here we include the Hellenistic, Roman, Persian, Mauryan, and Qin/Han empires. For these empires the way in which subject cultures were handled varied considerably, with some, such as the Ptolemies, the Romans, the Mauryans, and the Han being relatively tolerant, integrative, or pluralistic, while others, such as the Seleucids and the Qin attempted to impose a uniform state ideology. Even so, while Empire in some cases meant attempted cultural genocide, it was not based on ethnicity. As in the case of sacral monarchies, ethnic oppression was an historically contingent product of Empire.

It is also important to point out that in most cases race played essentially no role even in the legitimation of these empires. Rome, for example, while it certainly took slaves from Africa also took them from the Greeks whose culture they regarded as superior. And our word for slave comes from the Latin name of the people most associated with this status: the Slavs of Eastern and Southeastern Europe who were lighter –not darker– than Romans. There was no color line. Indeed, there is only one case in which something like an idea of race became significant –the varna system which developed in India in the wake of the second, Indo-Aryan wave of urbanization. Varna means color and a complex hierarchy developed in India based in part on the conquest of earlier Dravidian by later Indo-Aryan arrivals. But again, this was an historically contingent product of conquest, not a cause.

Gradually these empires adopted axial age ideologies (Hellenism, Christianity, Buddhism, Puranic Hinduism, and the Chinese daoxue), which considerably softened their exploitative character. One new empire, Dar-al-Islam, emerged as part of a liberation struggle on the part of the Arab people against the oppressive remnants of Rome and ended up extending well beyond historically Arab lands, with ambiguous  results for the peoples involved. Like their more brutal Iron Age predecessors, these empires used their axial ideologies to legitimate their rule and thus sometimes oppressed local cultures, but this was incidental to their underlying function of taxing trade along the Silk Road (Mansueto 2016).


Primitive Accumulation

The articulation between ethnicity, Capital, and Empire with which we are familiar today, and which defines the modern idea of race is largely the product of the European conquest of Africa, the Americas, and eventually of parts of Asia. And this process was, ultimately, both an extension of the Germanic migrations which could themselves be read as legitimately a form of resistance to Roman domination and of an internal crisis in Europe which turned what had been a political-economic backwater into a global hegemon.

The nature of this crisis was rather paradoxical in character. The Germanic incursions into Celtic and Latin lands created a symbiosis between transhumant pastoralism and specialized agriculture which resulted in a number of innovations, including the alpine plow, which required strong oxen to pull it, but which could render dense, rocky, forest and montane soils arable, and the three field system (compelling evidence that European civilization is, in the very best sense, based on bullshit), which increased yields by some 250% over the course of five centuries (Anderson 1974), enormously expanding the surplus which could be devoted to crafts production, trade, the arts, scholarship, and religion. It also led to rapid increases in population. The transition from chattel slavery to feudalism, already in motion in the later Roman period, and facilitated by Christianity, allowed peasants to keep a portion of what they produced and facilitated this demographic and economic expansion. But it also required virgin land which could be allocated as knights’ fees to young warriors who had demonstrated their worth. While the population of Europe never exceeded the carrying capacity of the land, it by the middle of the twelfth century there was a shortage of virgin land to be allocated to young knights. This lead to an accumulation of armed young men with no land and thus no prospect of marriage –always a dangerous situation for any society— and what amounted to an aristocratic gang problem. Much of what we associate with medieval courtly culture, including the ethics of chivalry and courtly and romantic love derives from attempts to resolve this problem culturally. But ultimately Christendom opted for the obvious, military solution: the integration of the remaining Celtic periphery into Germanic Europe, the “re”-conquest of the Holy Land, al-Imarat Siqilliyya, and al-Andalus, and eventually the conquest of Africa, the Americas, and parts of Asia.

There is considerable debate around the role of these conquests in the process of capitalist development. Other factors clearly played a role. The already sparse population of Europe was further reduced by the Black Death, increasing the price of labor power and leading to a search for and implementation of labor saving technologies which were of little interest in places like South China, Southeast Asia, or India which could produce three crops of wet rice a year and thus had an unlimited supply of nearly free peasant labor (Frank 1998). The political stalemate between the Holy Roman Empire and the Papacy blocked formation of a single state structure which could effectively centralize surplus, leaving room for private entrepreneurship and a competition between these two entities to chart free cities with special economic privileges and self-government rights which were conducive to trade and commerce (Amin 1978/1980). At the same time the emergence of absolutist states, first in Norman Britain and then in France and Spain created the basis in experience for the idea of a divine sovereign which at once undercut Aristotelian science, causing a shift from teleological explanation to mathematical formalization which, over the course of four centuries, led to the emergence of secular mathematical physics (Mansueto 2012). It also set in motion the theological developments which led to the Reformation. And there is little doubt that the Protestant and specifically the Reformed mutation of Christianity endowed innerworldly productive activity with new meaning created a social psychology which, as Weber demonstrated, helped support capitalist development (Mansueto 2010a, 2010b, 2016).

This said, the greater part of the surplus which eventually supported capitalist development was extracted from conquered lands and peoples: not only from Africa, the Americas, and Asia, but from the Celtic and Slavic peripheries of Europe, from the ravaged, still half-Muslim territories of the Algarve, Andalusia, and Sicily, and from the Jews and Muslims expelled from these lands.

Perhaps the most accurate formulation would be simply to say that capitalism is not only an economic system; it is a way of life, a way of being human, and thus a modality of Being as such. This way was forged through a complex process in which conquest played a driving force, so that ethnogenesis, ethnic hierarchy, and ultimately racism and related forms of ethnic oppression became integrally bound up with it to such a degree that even as capitalist relations of production penetrated the planet and “late industrializers” and former colonies began to contest the position of the old imperial metropoles, they did so on terms defined by a metropolitan culture, which if not based on race, was fundamentally racist in its operation.

Let us see how this worked.

Class and Race

Ethnic difference was initially incidental to the process of primitive accumulation and capitalist development, a function of who happened to have the means and motive to conquer, and who was conquered as a result. But the overall pattern of conquest resulted in a situation in which Christian, Germanic Europe won and everyone else lost. Within Europe the more Germanic elements: the Norman Conquerors of England and al Imarat Siqilliyya, the Frankish conquerors of Gaul, the Nordic Rus in the Slavic east and the Visigothic and Frankish aristocrats who led the Reconquista in al-Andalus and eventually the Lombard north of Italy celebrated their superiority over the Celtic, Slavic, Moorish, and Jewish peoples they conquered, displaced, and sometimes even tried to annihilate.

But even so the emerging discourse around “race” was not exclusively about color and the idea of race, while used primarily by conquerors, was sometimes also invoked by those they conquered. In Spain and later in Latin America for example the Reconquista and Conquista mobilized ancient antisemitisms and emerging concepts of whiteness and sangre azul to differentiate the emerging Spanish nation from the Jews and moriscos of al-Andalus and later to create a complex hierarchy of castas in the New World. In England, on the other hand, the concept of race initially helped constitute the popular subject of the English and Glorious Revolutions, and pit the English people (under the leadership of the East Anglian Puritan gentry) against the Norman monarchy and aristocracy. In France philosophers of the Ancien Regime argued against the emerging concept of a secular, democratic French nation by imagining the aristocracy as the descendants of (racially superior) Frankish conquerors whose rights they defended against a “nation born of slaves.”

In this sense, racism in the Saeculum does indeed predate capitalism. It is the product of the conquests which permitted the primitive accumulation which constituted Capital and created a global system of ethnic stratification, both between Europeans and the peoples of Asia, Africa, and the Americas but also, to a far greater extent than is generally acknowledged, among Europeans.

From here, however, race and ethnic identity became bound up with two ideological complexes fundamental to the secular[2] project, which in turn gave racism a relatively autonomous character. The first, which is integral to the capitalist project, is what Weber called the Protestant Ethic (Weber 1968/1920). The second, what we called the “Lockean Exception,” which we will examine shortly, forms part of the humanistic secular project, which we will have to explain in order for its impact on the dynamics of racism to be properly understood.

Weber argues that what he called the Protestant Ethic gave religious meaning to hard work, savings, and investment and thus helped encourage the accumulation of capital. This was, for Weber, part of a broader arc of religious rationalization reaching back to what Jaspers (Jaspers 1953) later called the Axial Age, and more specifically to the tradition of prophetic ethical monotheism represented by Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. All three of these traditions, he argues, are focused on doing God’s will in the world. Judaism and especially Islam might reasonably be regarded as the most intense expressions of this way, but Weber argues that because both provide a relatively clear system of laws which allow one to determine whether or not one is a good Jew or a good Muslim, they produce relatively little psychic tension. Catholicism (and presumably Orthodoxy), on the other hand, while focusing on doing God’s will, see the term of this activity as otherworldly –as beatitude and even theosis, something which tends to privilege religious vocations over other callings. Because of this they demand rigorous rationalization of day to day life only of monastics and other religious virtuosi focused on achieving spiritual perfection.

Protestantism, on the other hand, because it rejects Catholic and Orthodox ideals of beatitude and theosis, and because it regards justification and sanctification as fundamentally God’s work and not that of humanity, redirects human activity towards this world. Human beings become instruments of the divine will, making that will effective in the world. Not only religious vocations, but all useful work, form an integral part of God’s work of redemption. But even here there are degrees. Specifically, Weber argues, the Calvinist doctrine of double predestination, by which God not only elects some to salvation but consigns others to the damnation that all merit because of their sins, induces intense spiritual and psychological anxiety, as people look for signs that they might be among the elect. Hard work, savings, and investment are among these signs, as they indicate effective implementation of the divine mandate to “be fruitful, multiply, and subdue the earth.” The result is intense, unrelenting innerworldly activity which, among other things, fosters the accumulation of capital. Other forms of Protestantism, such as Pietism, Methodism, and the Baptist tradition, with their greater emphasis on religious feeling and greater latitude for freedom of the will, give a somewhat less intense expression to the Protestant Ethic, but one more amenable to the working classes, who rarely feel “elect” but whose religious anxiety can nonetheless be mobilized to promote the discipline required for productive labor in an industrial society.

Weber recognized, of course, that by his own time, the Protestant Ethic had become unhinged from its theistic foundations, so that hard work, savings, investment, and the accumulation of Capital were no longer, for the vast majority of people, signs of election and an effective expression of God’s work of redemption, but rather ends in themselves.

No one knows who will live in this cage in the future, or whether at the end of this tremendous development, entirely new prophets will arise, or there will be a great rebirth of old ideas and ideals, or, if neither, mechanized petrification, embellished with a sort of convulsive self-importance. For of the last stage of this cultural development, it might well be truly said:’ “Specialists without spirit, sensualists without heart; this nullity imagines that it has attained a level of civilization never before achieved” (Weber 1921/1968:123-124).

We have put this a bit differently in saying that the theistic secularism represented by the Protestant Ethic gradually transforms itself, by way of the scientific and industrial revolutions and the process of capitalist development into the technocratic secularism which represents the hegemonic ideal of our own civilization.  At the same time, we would argue, the Protestant roots of technocratic secularism give it a drive which rather transcends capitalism –or for that matter socialism. The Calvinist God, after all, is not merely a self-disciplined, hardworking saver and investor. He is, rather, an all-powerful creator who produces infinitely without consuming at all and thus actually has no need for his human agents or anything else that he creates.

When joined to an historical materialist analysis of capitalism and of class, Weber’s thesis enormously enriches our understanding of the trajectory of capitalist development and of class struggle, especially in Protestant societies. The Calvinist God is, ultimately, Capital itself, or rather the apotheosis of Capital once it has rendered human labor and eventually all material inputs redundant. That this may be impossible from the vantage point of secular mathematical physics (due to the second law of thermodynamics) does, not, of course, prevent it from operating as an ideal or even from attracting the efforts of scientists anxious to circumvent their own laws in its service (Tipler 1994). And the various classes of capitalist society, constituted by their relationship to Capital, engage each other first and foremost on the distinctly capitalist –and Calvinist—terrain of productivity. This has the effect of forcing socialism to defend and thus to define itself in essentially capitalist terms –as a superior engine of technological and economic progress rather than as transitional form terminating in the decommodification of labor power. Thus the tendency of the leftist intelligentsia in Protestant societies to criticize Capital on the basis of its unproductive consumption rather than its instrumentalization of labor.[3] And thus the tendency of those left behind to opt for religious and ethnopopulist ideologies which stress an emotional conversion experience or which valorize identities distinct from those defined by one’s position in the relations of production, effectively dooming efforts at building a mass communist movement.

But this is a line of reasoning for another article.  What interests here is the fact that the Protestant Ethic also provides the basis for hierarchizing peoples based on their degree of conformity to the Protestant Ethic, more or less regardless of how they come by this conformity. This hierarchization had, in turn, two effects. First, it effectively constituted the Anglo Saxon[4] elites associated with Core Capital as a religiously and spiritually superior caste. Second, it established criteria on the basis of which other ethnoi could be ranked. Thus the emergence of  “new superior cultures (Chua and Rebenfeld 2014),” And “model minorities (Freedman 2005, Li and Wang 2008);” thus the distinction between productive “makers” and outcaste “takers.”

The second ideological complex affecting ethnic stratification is rooted not in theistic and technocratic secularism, but rather in the liberal variant of humanistic secularism and specifically in the way in which this ideal was formulated by John Locke –the formulation most important for Anglo-American civilization. We should note, to begin with, that freedom and democracy on the one hand and slavery on the other have always been intimately bound up with each other. The democratic space created in Athens by the Seisachtheia and later by the reforms of Cleisthenes and Pericles liberated the Athenian peasantry from debt slavery only to replace it with a chattel slavery founded on wars of conquest. This was legitimated, albeit with significant reservations, by Aristotle, based on a natural difference between rulers and ruled, free and slave, defined by the full development of the rational faculty, as evidenced by the ability to deliberate around questions of meaning and value, as opposed by the more limited ability to understand and follow commands (AristotlePolitics, 1254b16–21) – though to be fair Aristotle argued that this distinction did not necessarily correspond to that between those who were actually free or actually enslaved, which was more a matter of fortune than of natural ability. It is, in fact, possible to read the whole arc of development of the Hellenistic and Roman empires as an attempt to sustain the ideal of the free human being and citizen, which depended on the liberating work of the slave, which alone allowed the citizen to live a life of free deliberation, long after its material basis in the innovative specialized wine, oil, pottery and wool producing economies of the Greek city states had vanished, by building “world empires” the conquest of which created a steady supply of slaves but also a military dictatorship which rendered the formally surviving democratic public arena largely impotent, even for the small number, the Senatorial Order, who were afforded meaningful participation.

Aristotle’s distinction was never fully coherent. Clearly there are degrees of development of the rational faculty. But the capacity to deliberate around questions of meaning and value is constitutive of humanity. And attempts to apply this distinction to the peoples of Africa and the Americas foundered on evidence regarding their societies acknowledged by missionaries such as Bartolomé de las Casas, whose arguments were formally accepted by the ordinary magisterium of the Catholic Church.

Representatives of the rising gentry and bourgeoisie, such as John Locke, could not, in any case, accept any doctrine of natural superiority which might be turned against their own constituents and use to argue for their subordination to the monarchy and the aristocracy. And so he argues for an underlying equal humanity based in the fact that we are all created by God, and are thus God’s property. No one can lawfully kill us, harm us, or deprive us of our freedom. Slavery –except, of course, our underlying slavery to God—is excluded.

This said, the enslavement, or at least the radical instrumentalization of the many remained the condition for the freedom of the few, as it always does until scarcity and selfishness are transcended. Someone has to generate the surplus necessary to support the leisure which full democratic participation requires. Like Aristotle, Locke was presented with a de facto system of exploitation (in this case also chattel slavery) which he then had to legitimate if the freedom and democracy he valued were to be possible for anyone. What is important to us here is not whether or not he actually believed in his exception, but rather the fact that it defined one of the principal and perhaps the most enduring of the many ideological complexes which have legitimated slavery and racism in the United States.

Locke says that anyone who commits a crime worthy of death can instead be enslaved for whatever term the offended party (in the state of nature or in a state of war between two peoples) or the government (in civil society) sees fit. While Locke never specifically draws out this implication, this lead the existence of legal slavery (including slavery in the Carolina Colonies for which Locke helped draft the Constitutions) to be read as hereditary penal servitude in perpetuity. Thus the outlawing of African Americans. And, since crime and the state of  war were not, in this context, rigorously distinguished, it being assumed that a liberal state would wage war only in defense of natural rights and thus against natural rights criminals, all of the global adversaries of the liberal state were, at least potentially outlawed. Thus the constitution of a broad social category including (and effectively criminalizing) slaves, ex-slaves, and their descendants, indigenous peoples resisting conquest, undocumented migrants, revolutionaries, terrorists, rogue nations, war criminals, those guilty of crimes against humanity, and defeated foreign powers, even when the conflicts in question were more contests for global Empire than struggles for universal human rights.[5]

Ultimately the Lockean exception is product of the attempt to realize the liberal and democratic ideals under conditions of enduring scarcity and more specifically of emerging capitalist relations of production. It is difficult at best for people to devote themselves to deliberation around questions of meaning and value when they lack the leisure to pursue extended intellectual, moral, and spiritual self-cultivation. It is even more difficult when forced to sell one’s labor power, and thus to act in accord with another’s judgment rather than one’s own, in order to survive.[6] [7]


The ethnic stratification constituted by the Germanic conquests was, in the first instance, one which set European peoples above Asians, Africans, and indigenous Americans. Among Europeans, it set Germanic peoples over Slavic, Celtic, Latin, and other European peoples. And among Germanic peoples it set the Normans and Anglo-Saxons against each other and over everyone else. It is not surprising that, from the vantage point of an African, Asian, or indigenous American, the principal demarcation would be experienced as a color line. But the operation of the Protestant Ethic and the Lockean Exception had the effect of actually softening the racialization of ethnic stratification, both globally and within the United States. Collective economic success allows a people or an ethnic community to bargain its way up the global and North American varna hierarchy much more so than it allows an individual to do so. The same is true of rigorous adherence to the norms of the liberal order. Undocumented entry into the United States, or participation in black market economic activities of the sort typical of excluded communities marks a group as “illegal” or as a group of gangsters, a stigma which has affected not only African Americans and Mexicans but also Italians and Sicilians. Countries which adhere to liberal norms both internally and in their international relations (including respect for intellectual property norms) rise on the varna scale. Those which do not risk being labelled “rogue nations” or “failed states.”

At the same time, the Lockean exception in particular has been reproduced, generally for geopolitical or strategic reasons, in ways which reinforce the racialization of stratification. After the Civil War the North, led spiritually by East Anglian elites which had been struggling with Norman aristocrats since the Battle of Hastings, decided that they could not permanently criminalize the entire Southern landed elite. Doing so would have required criminalizing most of the non-African American population of the South (or admitting that they were not sufficiently competent to be held responsible for their participation in the rebellion), would have unleashed the freed slaves to extend their struggles in ways which called into question property rights constitutive of the Northern ruling class, and alienated the British Empire, still much stronger than the United States, which had been allied with the Confederacy. And so a war which actually had been prosecuted against positive and natural law criminals (guilty of rebellion and slavery) was resolved as if it were a family feud, marking the Southern landed elite and their non-African American collaborators as “within” the law when they had actually been outside it. This effectively constituted a “white” identity in the South which was then extended to other Euro-American groups over the course of the next 100 years.

What does this analysis imply with respect to the relationship between ethnicity and Capital? First, it should be clear that the history of conquest which constituted Capital coupled with the forms of legitimation of both Capital and the liberal state (the Protestant Ethic and the Lockean Exception, the latter of which also ensure the compatibility of liberalism and Empire), has created what amounts to a global varna system. This system is not based on race, but rather on the position of a particular people in the global imperial hierarchy and its conformity to the Protestant Ethic and liberal norms as modified by the Lockean Exception –i.e. reading de facto criminalization resulting from a history of slavery, exclusionary immigration policies, etc. as indicating actual criminality, both individual and collective.  The result is a hierarchy which corresponds closely with race, with groups conforming to the Protestant Ethic  and free from outlaw status (i.e. “model minorities”) allowed to migrate up the hierarchy, though only so far.

There remain significant global and regional variations in this hierarchy. Much of this has to do with the persistence of what amounts to aristocratic lineages to which most in the United States, regardless of ethnicity, remain blind. Old East Anglian families of Puritan extraction and the Dutch and Scottish aristocrats with whom they allied dominate in New England, the Northeast, and much of the Midwest. In the South old Cavalier and Tidewater gentry lineages remain important. The further west one goes, the less this matters until one gets to Northern California and the Pacific Northwest, where there is at least an echo of Northeastern hierarchies. At a global level continental European aristocracies chafe at the hegemony of US based Anglo-Norman elites and foment anti-Americanism on both the Left and the Right. Ancient elites in China (some of which survived the Revolution and the Cultural Revolution), India, Japan, and Dar-al-Islam, similarly, all engage global politics in a way which is determined both by their current reality as instances of Capital and their identity as carriers of civilizational ideals very different from the Protestant Ethic and liberalism. All this merits further investigation, especially in light of the evolution of Global Capital we will discuss in the next section. But the fact that remains there is a global varna system shaped by the process of conquest which constituted Capital, modified by the operation of the Protestant Ethic and the Lockean Exception. This system operates both among European groups and between those of European origin and the rest of humanity. It is deeply bound up with class structure by relatively independent of it.

Just how this system is evolving in the present period and what we should do about it depends significantly on the way in which Global Capital is evolving.

Global Capital

The current situation represents a sharp departure from the realities which gave birth to the national liberation movements. However much capitalism may have been born by the global conquests of ethnically specific ruling classes, which in turn defined a series of imperial hegemonies: Spain, the Netherlands, England, and the United States, with France, Germany, Japan, and to a far lesser extent Italy and Russia as secondary hegemons, in the present period Capital has emerged as an autonomous force independent from human beings generally, and certainly from any putative nations. The formation of a unified global market in capital has led to the rapid industrialization of the former Third World and to a gradual closing of the international wage gap in spite of continued barriers to a mobility for labor comparable to that enjoyed by Capital. While it is unlikely that the working classes of India and China will ever enjoy a standard of living under capitalism comparable to that enjoyed by workers in the United States, Europe, and Japan during the postwar period, their wages, working conditions, and standards of living are improving while those of the old “labor aristocracy” of the imperial metropoles has begun a gradual and irreversible decline. The planet’s future, at least under global Capital, is neither Denmark nor Darfur, but rather Bangalore and Shenzhen. As Andre Gunder Frank has argued (Frank 1998), this simply represents a restoration of the historic norm of Chinese and Indian economic dominance which was briefly undercut by some very anomalous developments in Europe.

This new situation presents grave dangers, and from two fronts. On the one hand, it creates in the old imperial metropoles the classic configuration of forces which gives rise to fascism. A mass of workers fearing or experiencing loss of long held privileges creates a mass racist movement which then supports efforts on the part of the more backward sectors of Capital which still have some attachment to people or place (mostly likely the extractive and perhaps the agrarian sectors) and those whose function is to defend people and place (defense/aerospace) to militarize the population and seek to restore former imperial glory. At the same time we should not be surprised that as the limits to growth under Capital become apparent, both major rising powers such as India and China, and those permanently stuck because of unfavorable ecological and geopolitical factors such as Russia should take a nationalist, populist turn which itself has fascistoid characteristics. Far more than in the 1920s-1940s we are entering a period in which the liberal bourgeoisie, itself increasingly dispossessed by a Capital which has become an autonomous force, might find itself not only vacillating and weak, but actually impotent to resist a fascistoid resurgence which captures essentially all of the most powerful nation states on the planet.

The two ideological complexes which we defined above serve, in turn, both to strengthen and to inflect this potential fascistoid trajectory. First, the Protestant Ethic, which is the principal mechanism governing the terms of status struggle in the Third Saeculum, has been turned increasingly against the old labor aristocracies of the declining imperial metropoles, which now find their comparative advantage in productivity declining as the planet becomes technologically uniform. As their incomes stagnate they find themselves, furthermore, an in increasingly weak position to acquire the academic titles and embrace the lifestyle markers which convey productivity or usefulness to society by the standards of the contemporary global elite: a healthy diet consisting only of locally sourced, humanely produced organic food, prepared at home using labor intensive methods or in restaurants which charge a status premium on top of the very real actual costs involved in preparing and serving such food, regular exercise, preferably during work hours so others are aware of it, and a physique which demonstrates that both of these practices are, in fact, bearing fruit, indicating a strong underlying genetic endowment (yes, the cultural left is into human biodiversity as well, just along different dimensions). Even the significant attempts to understand the challenges faced by so called “less educated white workers” (Case and Deaton 2015) depict their subjects as hopelessly pathetic drug and alcohol abusers.

The invocation of the Lockean Exception by those left behind by globalism is, in this regard, not surprising, nor is the partial displacement of Christian fundamentalism by Lockean Exceptionalism as the principal linking ideology on the right.  This invocation amounts to a cry on the part of the newly disprivileged that while they may no longer be productive and thus among the “elect,” at least they are “legal,” or  at most guilty of misdemeanors.


What is to Be Done?

The question is how, under these circumstances, to respond to the enduring reality of racism both globally and in the United States. It should be clear, first of all, that while the caste/class theory clearly captures important elements of the way in which racism operates, the process of capitalist development leaves intact not only the economic effects of racism, as Wilson acknowledged, but also significant elements of caste itself.  Racism will not disappear simply as a result of capitalist development supported by the extension of the liberal order. On the contrary, capitalism is not simply an economic structure but an entire way of being human, a way which hierarchizes not only individuals but communities, and indeed whole peoples, based on their conformity to the Protestant Ethic, fully secularized as the civilizational ideal of the Third Saeculum.

There has been much agonizing recently over the so called decline of the “middle class.” From the vantage point of the historical materialist tradition, of course, the concept of the “middle class” is vacuous to begin with. There is the bourgeoisie, which owns enough capital not to have to work and the proletariat which must sell its labor power in order to survive. In between lies only the ever declining petty bourgeoisie, which has enough capital (whether in land, tools, money, or skills) not to have to sell its labor power, but not enough to be exempt from labor altogether.

The much vaunted “decline of the middle class” is, at an economic level, a reflex of the declining demand for routine human labor. It is no longer sufficient, in order for one’s labor to be worth exploiting, and thus to be regarded as among the elect, to work hard and live with enough self-restraint to remain productive throughout most of one’s natural life. Indeed, it is no longer sufficient that one have the ability and self-discipline necessary to acquire significant skills. As technological progress drives the demand for human labor down towards zero, it is necessary, rather, to be an innovator who can command what amounts to a monopoly rent on innovations. And this is a much narrower group indeed than the old “middle,” actually working class, which in fact encompassed the vast majority of the population.

We are, of course, still quite a way from the point at which the demand for human labor, or even unskilled human labor, approaches zero. But even relatively modest economic declines have generated significant insecurity. And status declines much faster than relative income. People are now being told that in order to be counted among the “saved” they have to be something that essentially no one can be assured of being just through hard work. Instead, one has to “make it” much as a performer or athlete would, something which depends on both extraordinary talent and on matching the demands of the market, as well as on significant good luck.

This, in turn, generates a reaction formation which invoke alternative ways of asserting status or at least claiming dignity. Evangelical Christianity and Lockean Exceptionalism are the most important of these in the United States, with the latter forming the basis of a racialized “white American” identity.

Second, the struggle against racism is no longer simply or even primarily an anticolonial struggle and anticolonialism, furthermore, erred fundamentally in understanding its aim as the construction of autonomous nation states. While colonial elements remain in the relationship between the United States and its oppressed minority communities, and between the United States and its dependents in Asia, Africa, and especially Latin America, the same is true both for great powers in the old Soviet Bloc, chiefly Russia itself, and emerging powers formerly part of the old “Third World,” and in particular for China, which has been an imperial formation for over 2000 years and which has both its own internal colonies and emerging external colonies in Africa as well as Asia. India, always more powerful as a civilization than as a state, presents a somewhat more complex picture, but the idea of a subcontinental Hindutva leveraged by emerging economic prowess and backed by nuclear weapons can only be called quasi-imperial in character. Dar-al-Islam remains too divided in too many ways to bring into being the restored counterimperium envisioned by fundamentalists, but declining petroleum supplies (reflected in rising mineral rents), access to nuclear weapons through the Pakistani, most likely the Saudi, and perhaps eventually the Iranian states, and the enduring civilizational power of Islam will ensure that counterimperial aspirations remain powerful.  Globally we are looking at an integrated world market in which the economic inequality between regions gradually decline while internal inequalities increase, something which will not infrequently put local ethnic minorities at a substantial disadvantage.

As our analysis suggests, racism as it actually exists, while in a certain sense predating capitalism, is intimately bound up with it through the ideology of the Protestant Ethic, which provides Capital with its most powerful form of legitimation and with the articulation of the liberal ideal across capitalist relations of production which inevitably generates “exceptions” to a dignity which, precisely because it is supposed to be grounded in a universal shared humanity, radically dehumanizes those it excludes. There can be no definitive transcending of racism apart from a transcendence of Capital.

This said, for precisely the same reason, the struggle against capitalism is in significant measure a struggle against racism.  It is quite impossible to resist Capital without resisting the Protestant Ethic and without understanding the dynamics of the Lockean Exception. With respect to the first it is essential that we reject fundamentally the demand that human beings legitimate themselves on the basis of their usefulness to society. A dignity grounded on usefulness is already only the dignity of the slave. If we distinguish ourselves from others based on our superior usefulness (because we consent to and take responsibility for our own exploitation) then we say, in effect, that others are useless takers who must be compelled, whether by law or by market forces, to make themselves useful.  And when we break with this ideology we begin deconstructing the core of white identity, the Anglo/Puritan identity of Core Capital, much more powerfully than we do when we simply point out that Capital itself, because it also consumes, falls short of its own ideal. At the same time, this means recognizing that Capital instrumentalizes everyone, even those who nominally own and certainly those who manage it, and that Capital is rapidly rendering us all redundant.

And redundancy, ultimately, means outlawry. It is quite impossible for the useless –which ultimately means all of us— to survive within the norms of the law. And so the Lockean difference between the law-abiding, who retain their natural rights, and the outlaw who may be enslaved, is ultimately groundless. We are all criminals. We are all outlaws. Or at least we become that as the accumulation of Capital renders us redundant.

What does this mean concretely? At the most fundamental level it means recognizing the inherently destructive character of the secular project, in both its theistic/technocratic and humanistic forms. Precisely because we crave the infinite, we will always have desires which no technology can satisfy. What both Capital and historic socialism tell us is simply a difficult period of primitive accumulation or socialist construction which will eventually open up into a technological utopia in which scarcity will at long last be vanquished is, in fact, as Weber pointed out, an iron cage from which there is no escape. This does not mean that technological and economic progress are not values or that they cannot help us solve real problems and promote human flourishing. But they are neither ends in themselves, as the Protestant Ethic and its technocratic residues ever so subtly lead us to believe, nor are they the quantitative path to a qualitative omnipotence which would at long last allow us to cross the threshold from necessity to freedom. Productivity is a participation in the creativity of Being as such, but only a participation.

The humanistic variant of the secular ideal is, perhaps, less vacuous, but it is also fatally flawed. The individual and collective autonomy and self-determination promised by liberalism, democracy, and communism are ultimately nothing other than secular forms of the religious ideal of theosis. Rational, lawful autonomy is impossible in the context of the commodification of labor. To this extent Marx was right. But Aristotle was also right that such autonomy is impossible apart from leisure. And if, precisely because of our craving for the infinite, scarcity cannot be overcome, then the uncontested universal leisure which an authentically democratic autonomy and self-determination require is also impossible. There will always be the possibility that if someone else labored more on our behalf, we would be able to do and be more. This does not, once again, mean that we should not work to promote liberal rights and democratic participation, and to decommodify labor power once and for all. But these are only participations in a self-determining Being to which we aspire but which will never be our own. We lack the power of Being as such and are thus not fully autonomous. We cannot be. We will always instrumentalize and always be instrumentalized. There is no exit.

No exit, that is, so long as we imagine that our closest approach to Being as such is impassivity or self-determination. If, on the other hand, we recognize that the Being we crave is a radical self-giving, a pure relational, transformative generativity, things begin to look different. What seemed like instrumentalization now appears as radical interdependence, as gift giving even. The labor of bringing the universe into being becomes a great liturgy. Our less than fully autonomous participation in deliberation regarding the Common Good makes the public arena a great synagogue.

Just what this looks like institutionally remains an open question. We do not yet know how to transcend the commodification of labor, but we can restrict it by restoring and expanding the commons. We need to support rational autonomy not only with legal protections for liberal rights but with liberal education which cultivates the capacity of people to decide for themselves, in the context of humanity’s ongoing deliberation, what it means to be human. We need to respect as far as we can the right of individuals and communities –including  whole peoples—to live different ways, while at the same time undertaking a common deliberation regarding our shared ends as human beings.

More immediately, we need to target the institutional mechanisms in which the Protestant Ethic and the Lockean Exception are embodied. Understanding that labor is a participation in Ripening Being, we need to restrict as much as possible the extent to which it is merely a means of survival. The commonwealth of humanity should be the soil out of which our creativity grows. There are many ways to progress gradually in this direction. Guaranteed Basic Incomes, as well as subsidized housing, food, transportation, education and other basic necessities without a work requirement are increasingly within reach given the overall level of productivity and the declining demand for human labor. We need to put them more and more on the public agenda and gradually break down the distinction between “makers” and “takers.” For those who still find their labor in demand, we need to change the incentives from relentless productivity to balanced social contribution and self-cultivation, while spreading the opportunity to work more broadly. Here a shorter work week, extended paid vacations, and a range of sabbatical opportunities are fundamental.

Recognizing that the liberal state has sustained itself from the beginning only by setting itself over and against the criminal Other, we need to target the very notion of the criminal condition. This does not mean that communities should not protect themselves from violence or theft. But we need to reject on principle the idea that there is any offense which is deserving of death even if on rare occasions we still find it necessary to kill those whose violence cannot otherwise be contained. Nor, indeed, is the basic liberty of person forfeited because they have become a threat to others. It is just that their right to freedom is outweighed, temporarily, until they learn self-restraint, by the rights of those they have threatened.  And we need to reject on principle the idea of a felonious state in which someone, because of their actions, is deprived of the right and capacity to participate in deliberations regarding the common good.  The argument for democracy rests on the idea that we all share a common reason, even if some have cultivated that capacity further than others. This rationality does not disappear just because we do something wrong.

In short, when we look at a homeless person with no marketable skills, when we look at the convict on death row or sentenced to the ridiculously long terms of imprisonment which have become the norm, we need to see not some sort of radically different creature, but rather our own selves.

This may not sound like a strategy for fighting racism. And it is, indeed, not just that. It is a comprehensive way of directing the main blow against our instrumentalization by the Saeculum, whether in the form of Capital or, more rarely, the State. But we have demonstrated that racism is not about race. It is about capitalism as a way of life, which rank orders individuals and peoples against the criterion of the contribution to the accumulation of capital and which systematically outlaws and criminalizes those peoples deemed useless.

This is the only way to fight racism as it actually exists.



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[1] For a critique of Heidegger on this point see Mansueto 2010a.

[2] We use to term Saeculum or more precisely the Third Saeculum to denote our own civilization, because it seeks to ripen Being through inner-worldly civilizational progress. Within this context there are competing civilizational projects, including theistic secularism, which understands innerworldly civilizational progress as fundamentally the subjection of the world to divine sovereignty, technocratic secularism, which focuses on transcending finitude by means of scientific, technological, and economic progress, and humanistic secularism, which seeks to transcend contingency by creating a political subject which makes humanity the master of its own destiny. The latter, in turn has liberal, democratic, socialist, and populist variants which identify this subject with the rationally autonomous individual, the people as demos or citizen body, the working classes, or the people as ethnos. Of these, it is the technocratic project which is clearly hegemonic. The First Saeculum was constituted by the sacral monarchies of the Bronze Age, which sought divinization by means of conquest and sacrifice. This project collapsed at the end of the Bronze Age and gave way to the axial project focused on cultivating spiritual progress by means of seeking wisdom, doing justice and restoring harmony with the cosmos. The Second Saeculum  was constituted by the great Iron Age empires which revived the sacral monarchic project on a much larger scale, bolstered by new iron technologies and with a focus on taxing the global Silk Road trade network rather than direct producers.

[3] In this sense the cultural left in the United States is, whether it likes it or not, the heir of the hyper-Calvinist New Divinity movement founded by Jonathan Edwards. Edwards began his career organizing those marginalized by the penetration of capitalist relations of production into the countrysides of Western New England, and was one of the leaders of the First Great Awakening, which staked out a broadly evangelical position in insisting on personal coversion, and not mere “usefulness to society,” too easily confounded with actually ill gotten wealth as an index of salvation. Gradually, however, Edwards constituents found new avenues for resolving their economic woes (specifically the confiscation of Indian lands) and Edwards turned a more critical eye to the emotional enthusiasm of the Awakening. Specifically, he argued that “true religion” while indeed situated in the affections, consisted in loving God not for what he could do for us, but for his own sake, because of His goodness. This led in turn to the development of the ideal of “disinterested benevolence” associated with his follower Samuel Hopkins, who argued that only those willing to be damned for the greater glory of God has any reason to even think they might be among the elect. The New Divinity movement soon collapsed on under the weight of its own impossible demands, but it set a standard which culturally Protestant reformers in the United States have upheld ever since. What is wrong with Capital is not its demand for absolute discipline and infinite productivity but rather the fact that empirical capitalists themselves still consume. The cultural left is all about asserting status superiority over Capital by showing itself more disciplined and more austere and indeed attracts significant elements of the bourgeoisie, especially among rentiers who no longer need to earn wealth in order to be free of the need to work, to this banner. But it is hardly an attractive ideal for those already exhausted by their instrumentalization in the service of Capital (Heimart 1966, Hatch 1977, Mansueto 2010a, 2016).

[4] The term Anglo-Saxon is, in this context, used with some precision, in that the core Puritan elites were in fact, quite specifically from East Anglia. It is these elites which settled in New England and constituted the core of the old Northern ruling classes, which aggregated to themselves other Reformed elements from Scotland, the Low Countries, and eventually Germany. The landed elites of the Tidewater and the Deep South were, on the other hand, drawn largely from the Southwest of England which had stronger Norman traditions (Zelinisky 1973, Fischer 1989, Woodward 2011). In England, it should be noted, this difference was one of the first sites of a discourse around race, with the concept of race initially serving to constitute the popular subject of the English and Glorious Revolutions, and pit the English people against the Norman monarchy and aristocracy.

[5] This is not to suggest that there is no such thing as terrorism, war crimes, crime against humanity, or even rogue nations. It is just that the definition of these categories in the context of the liberal order has been significantly deformed by the Lockean “exception” for slavery.

[6] It might be asked what relationship there is between what I have called the Lockean Exception and the state of exception and the status of homo sacer, also a kind of outlawed, analyzed by Giorgio Agamben (Agamben 1995/1998, 2003/2005). At the most basic level the answer is simple: the bare phenomenon (outlawry) is the same, the cultural forms through which it is mediated (Roman law on the one hand and Anglo-American liberal political theory on the other) are, if not unrelated, rather different as are the perspective from which they are being analyzed. Roman Law recognizes certain statuses which are entirely outside the purview and protection of the law. Thus, the state of exception is prior to and constitutes the state but is also recurring within the history of actual polities. The homo sacer is not strictly a criminal but rather someone outside legal protection. Anglo-American liberal theory rejects this possibility by invoking a system of natural rights which is prior to the state, so that it is quite possible to be a criminal even where no state and no positive law exists. There is, to be sure, a difference between people in state of war and a fugitive criminal in civil society, but the constitution of a liberal state which exists only to protect natural rights largely abolishes this distinction, since, at least in principle, it goes to war only against those who infringe on natural rights.


Agamben invokes the memory of Roman Law and analyzes the War on Terror as a state of exception partly because this framework is more important than Anglo-American liberal theory to his own Italian cultural context and especially to the fascistoid political theory of Carl Schmitt of which he sees himself presenting a kind of critical appropriation and transformation, much like Marx’s critical appropriation of political economy. Whatever one thinks of this broader project –and I am skeptical– he does manage to point out the difficulty of legitimating entirely extra-legal violence, something to which even the Obama administration has ultimately had to have recourse (in the liquidation of Bin Laden) in the context of the liberal state and the liberal world order. Ultimately, however, this option was embraced explicitly only by a narrow sector of the Republican Party (the Cheney-Rumsfeld group), supported materially by narrow extractive and aerospace/defense interests and spiritually and theoretically by a segment of the Straussian neoconservative right. In the end even the Bushes abandoned this approach. What the United States is currently struggling with, across a broad spectrum that extends on both Left and Right well beyond the “mainstream” is the reality that our hegemonic cultural forms render a very large swath of humanity –the “useless” and thus unwaged, and therefore propertyless, at least potentially outlawed.

[7] Alternative formulations of the liberal and democratic ideals, such as social contract theory and formalism do not really remedy this problem. Social contract theory (Rousseau 1762/1962), by vesting self-determination in the collective demos effectively liquidates rational autonomy and while it abstracts more fully from property relations than Locke’s natural rights theory is by no means full resistant to mobilization by racist and even slave-owner interests. Witness the long tradition of invoking popular sovereignty doctrines to legitimate slavery and later Jim Crow in the South.

Formalism (Kant 1781/1969) does a better job of grounding liberal freedoms in human rationality, independent of property rights, but does not touch the external relationships between people so long as they are formally free and consensual, with the result of leaving capitalist relations of production untouched. At the same time, formalism defines a subjective morality which, in rejecting instrumentalization of any kind, matches the New Divinity in erecting a standard no rational animal can meet. It thus provides the liberal intelligentsia with a permanent ideological weapon against instrumentalizing Capital, but at the same time renders it permanently unable to meet its own moral standards and thus to legitimate itself  to actually lead.

Communism, as originally theorized by Marx in the Paris Manuscripts (Marx 1844/1993) is, first and foremost, an answer to this problem. On the one hand, Marx points out, rational autonomy is impossible apart from the decommodification of labor. At the same time, because labor is fundamentally social in character, the resulting autonomy is not individual but rather collective and transhistorical. For the individual, as Lukacs later commented (Lukacs 1921/1977), alienation remains. Historic socialism imagined itself as a transition to this communism, which would, in the end, transcend “the contradiction between existence and essence,” and thus make humanity, collectively if not individually, divine. In fact, however, by confusing quantitative productivity with qualitative creativity, it transformed itself into simply a modality of the primitive accumulation of capital, and left the commodification of labor power untouched. And it is not clear how, even with the commodification of labor power transcended, human beings could actually make their own the power of Being as such.  This requires transcending humanity and indeed animality, life, physicality, and ultimately material existence.

In this sense, the trajectory of the humanistic ideal is ultimately a demonstration of our inability, as finite and contingent Beings to transcend a servitude which we all share. Attempts to create a political subject which transcends this servitude, whether the rationally autonomous individual, the people as demos, or the international working class, while reflecting authentic aspirations capable of catalyzing real social progress, also become dangerous illusions which can legitimate what amounts to an extension and universalization of slavery if taken literally. In this way they are not at all unlike traditional religious ideals of theosis, of which they are in fact secular forms. Aspiring to be God can motivate wisdom and compassion. Believing we are or can become God in and of ourselves, individually or collectively, legitimates instrumentalization.


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Against Maximalism

The surprising popularity of Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders’ campaign for the Democratic Presidential nomination has led many to believe that a “political revolution” is possible on the basis of a presidential campaign, apart from either conscious political-theological leadership or significant progress in the organization of the working classes, much less any authentic institution building, and without taking into account the broader material and spiritual conditions for such a revolution. This is a dangerous reading of the campaign, because it is leading some on the Left to question whether or not to support Hilary Clinton, the victorious candidate for the Democratic nomination, going into the general election at a time when the alternative is a fascistoid ethnonationalist. But it also reflects a dangerous misunderstanding of the nature of and argument for social revolution, as well as how such revolutions take place and what they contribute –and what they do not– to human development and civilizational progress over the very longue durée.


This paper will focus on the question of what constitutes a social revolution, how such revolutions take place, and how, given a correct understanding of revolution, we should understand the contributions –and weaknesses—of the Sanders campaign, as well as our broader priorities in the present period.



What is Revolution?


The concept of revolution is central to the humanistic secular ideal. This ideal, which emerged out of the Radical Aristotelianism of the late Silk Road Era, and its transformation into liberalism, democracy, and communism, looked to the constitution of a political subject which could make humanity the master of its own destiny and thus carry us across the boundary between contingent and necessary Being, resolving the contradiction between existence and essence and therefore making us, collectively, if not individually, divine. Liberal humanism locates this political subject in the rationally autonomous individual. Democratic humanism locates it in the body of engaged citizens. Communism locates it in the working classes, organized through either a mass or a vanguard political party (Mansueto 2010. 2016a, Marx 1848/1993).

Revolution is the process which constitutes this subject and thus divinizes humanity. It is, in this sense, the secular analog of the diverse axial concepts of enlightenment, redemption (in both the innerworldly sense of the redemption of the land and the constitution of a just society and the otherworldly sense of redemption from sin), and of harmony with the dao which guides the universe. From a secular vantage point revolution is all these things, or at least the means by which they are achieved. From the vantage point of the axial (Jaspers 1953) traditions[1], the Way of the Seeking Being, the Way of Justice and Liberation, and the Way of Harmony, this is reductive and an error, since the desire to be God which defines humanity can never be fully realized within the limits of spacetime. But even within the context of the axial ways, the concept of social revolution remains meaningful and valuable as a participation in the divine and as a means of creating the institutional conditions for human development, including spiritual development, as well as civilizational progress. While the axial traditions differ in the value they assign to these institutional conditions and to civilizational progress, all recognize their contribution to and participation in the process of spiritual development. This makes a correct understanding of the nature of revolution vitally important whether one is a Hellenist, a Hindu, or a Buddhist, a Jew, a Christian, or a Muslim, a Taoist or a Confucian, a Liberal, a Democrat, or a Communist, or –like more and more people in the present period– a seeker struggling to join two or more of these traditions a part of the longer process of working out a new synthesis and discovering a higher ideal.

We will see as we proceed that the axial traditions can provide important insights which contextualize our expectations of revolution as well as enrich our understanding of what a revolution requires. But to begin with we will focus on the concept of revolution as it functions within the various humanistic secularisms. The concept of revolution does not play a particularly central role in technocratic secularisms, except in so far as historic socialism, by focusing on the technological conditions for communism, has transformed itself into such a secularism, but we will note the significance of the concept for this tradition where it is relevant.

Broadly speaking, the term revolution, within the context of humanistic secularisms, can be used meaningfully in three different ways. The first, and most modest, is the idea of a political revolution in which one social class displaces another as the ruling class in society. This has happened a number of times historically. With emergence of metal technology and of warfare as a strategy of economic development, warlords gained an edge over the largely religious leadership of communitarian and archaic societies. The development first of petty commodity production (around 800 BCE) and eventually of capitalism (after 1500 CE) led to the gradual displacement of warlords by capitalists, on whom the former became dependent for the organization money which funded their continuing wars of conquest. The historical materialist theory of the socialist transition from capitalism to communism presupposed the displacement of the bourgeoisie by the proletariat, though it may well be, as will argue later, that we are seeing instead is the displacement of a bourgeoisie of capitalists by Capital as an impersonal force, perhaps eventually resident in transhuman or posthuman, artificial intelligences (Mansueto 1995, 2010).

The second sense of the term revolution is that of a transformation of the underlying structure of a society from one “mode of production,” such as feudalism or capitalism, to another, such as capitalism or communism. Revolution in this sense is fully theorized only for historical materialism or syncretic traditions which integrate its insights. Social revolution for historical materialism requires a change in the way in surplus labor is extracted, centralized, and allocated for production. A transition specifically from capitalism to communism would involve the decommodification of labor power, so that workers were no longer forced to sell their labor power in order to survive, but rather contributed freely of their creative potential through a process which spontaneously and noncoercively resulted in in the optimum use of everyone’s talents as well as the full creative realization of each individual. Such a state requires technological progress which effectively eliminates scarcity, so that there is no real need for anyone to do anything in particular, and any contribution which an individual makes represents a pure gain for the community above and beyond what it needs to survive and reproduce at its current level of development. It also requires a radical transcendence not merely of selfishness but of any desires whatsoever which might lead an individual to want to act in a way other than that which best promoted the Common Good. Whether or not these two conditions can actually be met, or whether communism remains an ideal which can only be asymptotically approached, and then only over millennia of continued cosmohistorical evolutionary progress, remains open to question.

Socialism was historically understood as a form of transition from capitalism to communism in which the working class, having seized control of the state apparatus, through the mechanism of either a mass or vanguard party, makes that state the principal resource allocator, displacing the capital markets, as well as the ideological apparatus, with the aim of catalyzing the technological progress and/or carrying out the cultural revolution which communism presupposes. Political revolution is thus understood as a step towards, but only a step towards, social revolution at the structural level.

This said, there has been some work in the liberal and democratic traditions aimed at defining the conditions for freedom and democracy which point towards structural conditions. Thus some liberals, such as Locke stress private property as the condition for rational autonomy while others such as Kant stress rule of law and the “enlightenment” which results from liberal education. There is also a large body on research on the structural conditions for democracy: widely dispersed private property, a citizen army based on light infantry, universal suffrage, a strong civil society, strong political parties, a sovereign state structure, widespread liberal education (Fukuyama 2011).

There is, finally, a third and deeper sense of the term “revolution” which I have introduced in my critique of historical materialism. This is a shift at the level of what I have called the spiritual and civilizational ideal: the particular form under which a civilization seeks the global human aim of theosis. The earliest human societies seem to have sought the divine largely though participation in divine creativity through the cycles of life: bearing and raising children, cultivating plants and husbanding animals. The first shift in ideal occurred at the beginning of the Bronze Age, when the idea emerged that at least some human beings could achieve divinity by means of conquest and self-sacrifice. Another such shift occurred with the emergence of the great axial traditions between 800 and 200 BCE, which criticized the sacral monarchic ideal and argued that theosis, to the extent that it was possible or could be approached at all, required authentic spiritual development which was, to be sure, understood differently across the different axial ways. The third great revolution at this level defines the modern or secular era, which attempts to achieve theosis by means of innerworldly civilizational progress, whether technological (pushing back the limits of finitude) or political (by constituting a political subject which makes humanity the authentic master of its own destiny and thus cancels our contingency and resolves the contradiction between existence and essence, contingent and necessary Being).

Of the classical sociologists Weber (Weber 1920/1968) comes closest to theorizing this sort of shift, but he tends to regard it as purely arbitrary: an absolute innovation in ideas captures the hearts and minds of the people and reorders human civilization. He explains neither how spiritual and civilizational ideals are rooted in material reality nor how they point to real transcendental ends.

These senses of the term of revolution represent successively higher degrees of social transformation. Political revolution has historically been valued as a way of undertaking structural revolution (transformation in the mode of production). But this latter is just a change in the means used to realize a civilization’s architectonic ideal.

It should be clear that if the Sanders campaign promises a revolution at all it could only be at the most limited, political level, albeit perhaps as a step towards deeper structural transformation. In order to assess the valence of this claim we need to look at it in the broader context of the ongoing debate about how revolutions take place and specifically the focus, characteristic of all modern secular politics –not only socialist or communist—on the question of state power.


How Do Revolutions Take Place?

There are, broadly speaking, three principal secular theories of revolution. The first, historical materialist answer is that social revolutions take place when the relations of production –the economic structure of a society —become an obstacle to further development in the productive forces, in human creative capacity. This generates economic contradictions and sets in motion a process of organization among the rising social class: the warlords under communitarian and archaic societies, the bourgeoisie in tributary societies, including those with a significant petty commodity component, and the proletariat under capitalism.

There has always been a tension within the historical materialist tradition regarding the relative importance of economic, political, and cultural factors in the revolutionary process. This debate is, for obvious reasons, most developed with respect to the revolutionary transition from capitalism to communism. For Engels and much of the later social democratic tradition economic factors were paramount. As industrialization proceeded the proletariat would grow and eventually become the vast majority of the electorate, winning state power through electoral means and then using control of the state to restructure society. Lenin argued that this is a mistake, that the commodification of labor under capitalism so alienated labor that workers were generally unable to rise to the communist ideal spontaneously, that breaks towards socialism occur first in societies where capitalist development (and thus the commodification of labor power and the alienation of labor) has been retarded by imperialism and other factors, and that a conscious leadership, constituted as a disciplined vanguard party, must lead the revolution, relying on “transitional demands” which address the immediate needs of the working classes, proletariat and peasantry, but to which Capital cannot accede without compromising its position. The vast majority of the proletariat remains unable to understand the communist ideal well into the process of socialist transformation. Bogdanov, Gramsci, and Mao add to this that the party must also, and even more importantly, lead ideologically, cultivating and understanding of the communist ideal through grassroots political education (Bogdanov), using popular, democratic, and religious traditions as a bridge to help the people understand the communist ideal (Gramsci), and struggling against individualistic tendencies which reproduce capitalism (Mao).

But in all cases historical materialist theory argues that revolutions will take place only when technological development makes old economic structures obsolete and empowers a new, emerging ruling class at the expense of an old one. Thus metal technology gave warlords an edge over the largely religious leadership of communitarian and archaic societies and first specialized agriculture and crafts production and eventually manufacturing gave the bourgeoisie an edge over the old warlord class. Marx assumed that modern industry would give the proletariat, which actually produces surplus, an edge over the bourgeoisie, which merely manages its extraction and allocation, and which consumes it (Marx and Engels 1848/1993). At the same time, though, Marx seems to have understood communism to require technological progress which made routine labor redundant and thus eliminated the need for anyone to do anything which was not an expression of the creative potential which defines us as human. This turns out to entail a basic contradiction. The technological progress which makes communism possible also renders the working class not more powerful but actually redundant, undercutting such traditional tools of class struggle as the strike and leaving Capital with access to military technology which makes old strategies of insurrection and popular war seem rather hopeless.

Two alternative theories of revolution derive from the other two principal traditions of secular social theory. We have already mentioned Weber’s focus on the emergence of new spiritual and civilizational ideals –what he calls prophecy. For interpretive sociology revolutions take place when prophets are heard. Prophetic charisma and ideals become routinized and effectively institutionalized, establishing fundamentally new ways of being human. There is no real account of how or why this sometimes happens and sometimes does not, beyond the fact that prophets who speak to popular sufferings and hopes receive a better reception than others. There is also a very strong sense in Weber that some ideals –those characterized by innerworldly asceticism, on doing the will of God in the world– lead to more powerful civilizations. This impact is intensified for Reformed Protestantism, in which the doctrine of predestination creates anxiety regarding one’s spiritual status (elect or damned) regarding which effective innerworldly activity is regarded as evidence (Weber 1921/1968).

There is a significant body of work which crosses the lines between the historical materialist and interpretive tradition which looks more specifically at what is involved in institutionalizing the liberal, democratic and capitalist ideals. Barrington Moore, for example, argues that the violent liquidation of the peasantry early in the process of capitalist development allows more democratic structures to emerge later on. And Theda Skocpol looks at the relative ability of the different emerging nation state structures to rationalize and provide the institutional infrastructure actually required by capitalist development and argues that when absolutist states fail to rationalize, as England did, the result is a break to more radically democratic forms (France) or even to socialism (Russia) (Moore 1966, Skocpol 1979).

Durkheim, finally, argues that it is precisely the collective effervescence, the distinctive intensity of social interaction which characterizes times of social upheaval, which enables human beings to see beyond their narrow horizons and imagine new and higher truths. These truths are then crystalized in new beliefs and new rituals which attempt to reproduce them. Again, there is no full account of just why, how, or when such collective effervescence emergences, though Durkheim’s early works suggest a focus on growing population density leading to pressure for innovation and an increased division of labor (Bellah 1973). Presumably the contradictions generated by this process generate intensified interaction as people attempt to resolve them and, when solutions within the context of existing norms and structures are not possible, the interaction itself catalyzes the emergence of new ideals. Other work along the traditionalist-functionalist spectrum in which Durkheim is located has focused on the role of the intermediate, nonmarket, nonstate institutions of civil society in making democracy possible. And work integrating functionalist and historical materialist insights has looked at the critical role of village community structures and peasant movements on the one hand (Eric Wolf 1969) and popular religious traditions (Lancaster 1987, Hodge 1986, and Mansueto 1995, 2002, 2010) on forging a mass movement towards socialism.

These theories are an important complement for and corrective to historical materialism, both because of the more expansive understanding of what a revolution might mean (a change in spiritual and civilizational ideal and not just in the structures which attempt to realize that ideal) and because of the depth they add to the already very considerable and growing body of historical materialist theory which engages questions of ideology, culture, and religion. At the same time, the historical materialist focus on the material (technological and economic) basis for revolution –and the impossibility of revolution where that basis is lacking is the condition of any possible analysis of why and how spiritual and civilizational ideals change. This is particularly important as we enter a period in which it becomes increasingly apparent that, contrary to Marx’s expectations, technological progress may render the working classes impotent and redundant rather than empowering them.

Where do we stand currently on the question of how revolutions take place? Human civilization, we have argued, is fundamentally an attempt to seek Being understood in the form of a particular spiritual and civilizational ideal, under definite material conditions, using definite social structures. When an idea loses credibility, when no structure can realize it, or when the material conditions to sustain it cease to exist, that ideal is abandoned in favor of a new one. More modest changes occur as civilizations develop new structures to pursue old ideals and develop new regimes of accumulation within a given structure.

We affirm the historical materialist thesis that no change can take place for which the material conditions do not exist. And we accept the contributions of both later historical materialist theorists and of interpretive and functional sociology that there spiritual as well as material conditions for revolution. But we reject the privileged place granted to the state not only by socialism and communism by nearly all secular social theory as a locus of and agent for revolutionary social transformation. Rather, see the state as one institution among many and argue that structural transformation must reach across all social domains, from technology, through economic and political structure, to the family and the ideological, cultural, and religious institutions of civil society. Conscious political-theological leadership is important not because the “hand” of history can be forced by a vanguard but rather because understanding the aims of human life –and the means to realizing those aims– at the very highest level helps leaders identify, cultivate, and mentor other leaders and build, conserve, and transform institutions over the longue durée. The actual process of revolution integrates the spontaneous and conscious maturation of material and spiritual conditions. Old ideals lose credibility, the structures which sustain them no longer work and the social classes (or other actors) which carry them find it increasingly difficult to build and exercise power. Emerging leaders from emerging social classes forge new ideals and build organizations, institutions, and broader structures to carry them.

This process of institution building, though, must be properly understood not just as the creation of new structures or the transformation of old ones but as the actual identification, cultivation, and mentoring of leaders, a process which in turn rests on one on one relationship building. New structures emerge to support, nurture, and protect these leaders and the relationships between them. By themselves structures do nothing.

Authentic revolutionary change at any level is a very protracted process. At the highest level, as transformation in spiritual and civilizational ideals, it can take centuries and millennia. This is especially true where the ideas in question reflect an advanced, and therefore difficult to cultivate, understanding of what it means to be human. Sacral monarchy swept the planet like wildfire within a few hundred years of the development of Bronze technology. And the technicist variant of the secular ideal, which aims at transcending finitude by means of scientific, technological and economic progress, which first emerged in the seventeenth century was, arguably, dominant by the nineteenth. But both quickly drew relenting opposition from the humanity that they instrumentalized.  The axial ideals which first emerged between 1200 and 800 BCE, on the other hand, which seek the divine in wisdom, justice, and harmony with the universe, have yet to be fully embraced. And the humanistic variants of the secular ideal, which emerged in the later middle ages, took hundreds of years to begin driving political events on a global scale and, while still alive, remain poorly understood. That is because these ideals require an unusually high level of intellectual, moral, spiritual, and political development on the part of the people as a whole. As Lenin pointed out, in order to understand Marx’s Capital one must first master Hegel’s Logic in its entirety, a feat which may, in fact, not even be possible. And so there may not be any true communist revolutionaries, only aspirants. Liberals and democrats might substitute other texts (Locke and the Federalist, Hume and Smith, Kant and Weber, Rousseau and de Tocqueville and Durkheim) – or even other practices– which are a bit more accessible. But the basic point is the same.

But even structural change takes a long time. Petty commodity production emerged in various parts of the world over periods of hundreds of years beginning around 800 BCE and never fully displaced tributary exploitation by conquering warlords and emperors. Capitalism has taken at least 500 years to fully establish itself, if we date its advent late, around the time of the European conquests of the Americas, Africa, and Asia. And the socialist transition currently appears to be abortive, though we lack the historical distance to make a definitive judgment of any kind.

The appeal of bold calls for political revolution comes from the fact that it is –sometimes– possible to seize state power and attempt a rapid transformation of both civilizational ideals and social structures. But the record of such attempts is modest at best. At this juncture it seems very unlikely that the socialist revolutions of the twentieth century actually represented a real change in ruling class, much less a break from capitalism and towards communism. They were, more likely, variant paths of capitalist development. And as Zhou Enlai pointed out when asked about the impact of the French Revolution (or, we might ask instead, the English or US revolutions), “it is still much too early to tell” to what extent their very real progress in extending freedom and democracy will survive the imperial and capitalist projects they also facilitated.


The Bern is Not a Revolution

With regard to the prospects for the specific “revolution” the promise of which has been made during the course of this election cycle we remain extremely skeptical. The principal question around which Senator Sanders has articulated in his campaign –growing income inequality—is, to be sure, a serious one. And it is good to see attention focused on questions of class when for the past several decades the Left has been focused primarily on questions of race, gender, ethnicity, and culture. This said, there are serious problems with Senator Sanders’ implicit strategy as well as the way in which he has cut the issue of income inequality.

First, Sanders makes the classic social democratic error of claiming that a revolution, even in the most limited sense of a shift in which class rules, is possible on the basis of a purely electoral struggle –and one focused on the Presidency at that. Attempts at an electoral transition to socialism have either been limited to reforms capable of winning the support of the more advanced sectors of Capital (the social democratic experience in Europe, of which the social liberalism of the New Deal and Great Society eras in the United States is really just an attenuated version) or, where they have actually threatened the bourgeoisie, have been met with armed repression (the experience of Allende in Chile, which defined the perspective of my generation with respect to the question of elections and armed struggle).

This is not to suggest either that armed struggle is to be preferred to electoral struggle or that we should not engage in electoral work. On the contrary, attempts to bring the working class to power by means of armed struggle have also failed. This is true both because state power does not constitute a ruling class and neither the mass party nor the vanguard party have turned out to be particularly faithful representatives of or effective means of exercising power on the part of the proletariat. This should not come as a surprise. Indeed, the very idea of the primacy of state power is quite contrary to historical materialism, for which class rule depends on ownership of the means of production, not control of the state. And the whole experience of historic socialism demonstrates that even 70 years of Communist power did not break the power of Capital which, rather, hid out in state structures waiting for a propitious moment to return. Ideological campaigns against bourgeois elements within the socialist state and the Communist Party, of the sort carried out in China during the Cultural Revolution, did no better and caused far greater damage to the social fabric and indeed to the whole civilizational project in China. It is, furthermore, not at all clear what kind of armed struggle would be necessary to prevail against Capital, acting through the state structures which constitute its Empire, given contemporary military technologies.

Armed struggle remains, to be sure, a legitimate option when deployed against the most brutal and oppressive regimes, where all of the traditional just war criteria have been met, but it is not a strategy for social revolution.

Electoral struggle, similarly, can be an important tactic in a broader strategy for organizing the working classes and transforming social institutions –especially for changing what the state itself is doing which, while not nearly as important as the secular left and right both believe it to be, is nonetheless very significant. But seeing electoral struggle as a way of carrying out a revolution both creates illusions about what can be accomplished in this arena and undercuts important possibilities of collaboration across social classes in addressing global challenges such as climate change, the impact of emerging technologies, globalization, armed conflicts, etc.

One ruling class displaces another when it becomes more powerful than its predecessor as a result of ecological, demographic, technological, economic, political, and cultural changes. This is not currently happening for the working classes. On the contrary, the working classes globally are experiencing the early stages of what will likely be a centuries-long process of technological progress which will render them redundant. And the working classes of the older imperial metropoles are at the vanguard of this process because globalization has rendered them too expensive by comparison with equally productive workers in the developing countries. It is the fact that the working classes today are more nearly left behind than rising that explains, at the most fundamental level, the support of so many workers, especially in the older metropoles, for national-conservative and right-populist politics rather than for social democracy, democratic socialism, communism, or any other left alternative, established or emerging.

This does not mean, to be sure, the there is no way to improve the position of the working classes or even to mount a longue durée struggle for power. But such a struggle will depend, on the one hand, on technological and economic changes, like those cited above, which, while affecting the working classes first and more dramatically, also undercut the position of the bourgeoisie, and on building at the political and cultural levels, through organizing and spiritual cultivation, the power which is lacking at the material level.

We will look shortly at how this might be done. But first let us consider the possibility that we need to cut Senators Sanders some slack. Perhaps all the talk of revolution is itself just a tactic (if perhaps an unwise one) in what, whether he recognizes it or not, is a campaign, a political operation, and not by itself a strategy for revolution or indeed for anything else. If this is true then the campaign should be evaluated as just that, regardless of what Senator Sanders or his followers claim. Perhaps in this light we can return a more favorable verdict …

Unfortunately this is not the case. Campaigns are a coordinated sequence of political actions designed to achieve (or make well defined progress towards achieving) a defined strategic aim within a particular theatre of struggle. In this case, the aim would seem to be to mobilize, organize, and raise the level of political consciousness among younger members of the working classes. In a campaign a problem (in this case growing income inequality) is cut as an issue around which specific, winnable demands can be made, and with respect to which there are well defined victory conditions.

Other commentators have pointed out that Senator Sanders has not significantly increased the participation of young workers in the political process. My concern, though, is more precisely the way in which he has cut the issue of income inequality. While he has made a number of policy proposals, such as increases in the minimum wage, single payer health insurance, etc. which would improve the conditions of the working classes generally, the focal point of his campaign has been an issue of critical importance to a very specific segment of the working classes: the cost of higher education and the resulting debt load for an increasingly underemployed intelligentsia.

Let me be clear. I believe that the intelligentsia is, with the exception of a small and contracting privileged elite which enjoys monopoly rents on creativity or innovation, an integral part of the proletariat. Resistance to proletarianization on the part of this fraction of the working classes is important because it is here that the alienation of labor, the loss of creative control, which Marx identified as the most fundamental problem of capitalism, is most keenly felt (at least where independent peasants and artisans have already been liquidated). That is why this class fraction has long been the natural core constituency for the communist ideal in its most authentic sense.

This said, Senator Sanders’ approach has a number of problems. First, it is mistaken to say that free higher education at public institutions in the US would simply extend to our country a practice which is already common in Europe and elsewhere. On the contrary, most European countries track students from an early age, maintain rigorous university entry standards, and offer few opportunities for students to begin university level studies in mid-life. This approach has advantages. University standards have probably remained higher and the distinction between research universities and what in Europe are often called polytechnics has remained clearer, with less (though still growing) pressure to vocationalize universities. The European model also means that free university tuition, because it is offered to fewer students, is more nearly sustainable economically, though this policy has come under increasing attack in recent years as Europe struggles to support its welfare state.

Higher education in the United States is very different. We offer low barriers to entry across wide age ranges and then let students sort themselves out once at a college or university, with low levels of support and correspondingly low completion rates. We have a tradition of a universal liberal education core curriculum at the university level which, while under attack, sets us apart from Europe which offers such studies only at elite secondary schools or not at all. The lines between liberal education, preparation for a scholarly or scientific career, professional preparation, and vocational training is much less clearly drawn here than in Europe. Meaningful “free tuition” at public universities, in order to significantly expand what is already very broad access, would be much more expensive than it is in Europe. Or, to keep costs down, it would come with expectations of progress towards degree which would actually undercut opportunities for older working students who sometimes take decades to complete a degree but who are generally the “nontraditional” students who benefit most from expanded access.

The focus on free tuition, furthermore, simply evades a fundamental problem with the way in which the US has handled higher education policy. The promise we have made to the working classes that higher education will guarantee them professional status and a middle class lifestyle is simply a lie. Expanding higher education reduces the monopoly rent on skill historically enjoyed by the professional classes and, together with globalization, is contributing to the proletarianization of this class. At the same time, in the name of increased access and “relevance” to students more interested in economic mobility than in assume a leading role in the intellectual, moral, spiritual, and political leadership of our civilization, we have undercut the rigor of the liberal education we offer. This in turn contributes to phenomena like the Sanders campaign –but also the Trump campaign—which rely on mass semiliteracy: people who, whether young hipsters with Ivy League degrees or displaced factory workers who have taken a couple of courses at the community college, imagine themselves in a position to deliberate regarding questions of meaning, value, and public policy apart from the conscious leadership, community, and institutional discipline historically provided by both political parties and the institutions of civil society, such as local congregations and civic and fraternal organizations.

Those who know my work know that I believe deeply that people from diverse backgrounds can, at different stages in life, benefit from and should have access to a rigorous liberal education. But we need to be clear to the people to whom we offer this what purpose it serves. While it may also offer them superior preparation for professional studies, its main purpose is to cultivate spiritually mature, free human beings and engaged citizens who can decide for themselves, on the bases of rational deliberation, where they stand on fundamental questions of meaning and value. Such an education involves studying a great deal the immediate relevance of which is not going to obvious to most students because frankly one purpose of liberal education is to cultivate human beings with a perspective of centuries, millennia, or even, at the highest levels, the perspective of eternity. And at the end of this process we become wise only to the extent that we realize how much more we need to learn and how much we benefit from communities, institutions, and leaders who, while respecting scrupulously our freedom of conscience, also challenge us and inform our conscience.

Education and research which serve workforce and economic development, meanwhile, are also legitimate missions for higher education. But we must cut ourselves loose from the web of lies which tells students that higher education will guarantee them a “middle class lifestyle” when in fact this will become increasingly rare even at the highest skill levels. We must provide vocational and professional preparation which trains students for work which uses ecologically sustainable technologies, captures or cultivates comparative advantages, cultivates human creativity, and meets real social needs while recognizing that even advanced skills will gradually become redundant. Higher education policy cannot be our principal means of addressing poverty and economic inequality. We must look at both employment in public works to repair and expand badly needed infrastructure, support for entrepreneurship, and the establishment of a basic income as well.

Again, this does not mean that we should cut higher education budgets. On the contrary, in the long run we should probably be investing more rather than less in higher education, across its liberal education, sapiential leadership, scientific, technological and workforce/economic development missions. We just need to do it in the right way, for the right reasons, and not rely on deception to justify the expenditures to a skeptical electorate.


A Longue Durée Strategy

So what should we do? Let us be clear first whether, why (or why not) and in what sense we need a revolution. The way in which we answer these questions, together with our analysis of the present period, frames our strategic estimate and strategic direction.

The fundamental argument for revolution is simple. The hegemonic spiritual and civilizational ideal of our time –what I have called technocratic secularism, which seeks to transcend finitude by means of scientific, technological, and economic progress—is bankrupt. On the one hand, it does not actually speak to humanity’s highest aspiration, which is not simply to live and consume forever, but rather to transcend contingency and become Being as Such through relational, transformative generativity. On the other hand, no existing structure, capitalist or socialist, actually supports the scientific, technological, and economic progress required to realize this ideal. Under capitalism both the value of labor power and the rate of profit decline as the economy becomes more technologically advanced, ultimately undercutting the conditions of existence of both Labor and Capital. Under socialism, because labor power remains commodified and thus alienated, as market pressures ease productivity declines as workers refuse to work to promote a civilizational progress in which they are not active, direct participants.

The alternative humanistic ideals of secular civilization, while less deeply flawed than the technocratic ideal, have proven no more susceptible of realization. Historical materialism is correct that rational autonomy and democratic self-determination are impossible under capitalism. But socialism, in addition to not actually being a form of transition to communism, has shown that, to the extent that it actually breaks Capital, requires a state and party structure which undercut the rational autonomy and democratic self-determination which are as integral to the communist as to the liberal and democratic ideals.

We need a new ideal and a new structure. We have discussed the ideal we propose elsewhere (Mansueto 2016a, 2016b). It is a way of ways which joins the insights of the axial and secular traditions, seeking wisdom, doing justice and ripening Being in harmony with the law of nature, while recognizing the value of plural ways and of the ability of each individual to decide rationally for him or herself which way they will follow, and the right of the people collectively to determine their own destiny, without the requirement that the sell their labor power in order to survive. But we have also been clear that this ideal, while advanced through innerworldly civilization building, is ultimately transcendental, and incapable of full realization within space and time. The revolution, in other words, turns out to be both the process of spiritual cultivation envisioned by the axial traditions and the process of social structural transformation envisioned by humanistic secularisms.

The principal insight which derives from the analysis developed in this paper is that the strategic position of the various social forces in the present period is rather different from that envisioned by either neoliberal defenders of Capital or their socialist critics. Technological progress is undercutting the conditions of existence of both Capital and Labor. The position of Labor is, to be sure, weaker to begin with and deteriorating much more rapidly. But Capital exists only as the accumulated surplus extracted from Labor and realized through the sale of commodities. Ultimately Capital without Labor is Capital no more. As Labor is rendered redundant, Capital ceases to exist.

The question is how Capital and Labor respond to these deeply rooted longue durée trends. Will Capital seek to contain and eventually liquidate what is increasingly a redundant surplus population, not only of workers but also of capitalists, and transform itself into an AI which produces as much as it can, consuming as little as it can –essentially Frank Tipler’s Omega, a technological transform of the Calvinist God? Or will the bourgeoisie, as it struggles with the increasingly precarious terms of its own existence, decide its defining identity is not capitalist but human and make common cause with the working classes to chart a human future for complex organization, life, and intelligence in the universe? Will Labor spend itself in rear guard struggles which aid and abet the genocidal and anti-human civilizational agenda of the most backward sectors of Capital and post-Capital? Or will it undertake the great work of forging a new ideal and the institutions which can advance that ideal, understanding that the process is infinitely prolonged and that along the way we will become something vastly different than we currently are, realizing our humanity is fundamentally the desire to Be something we cannot be, but which is nonetheless infinitely worth pursuing?

How can we organize the working classes in a way which builds and exercises power in service of a new spiritual and civilizational ideal which seeks wisdom, does justice, and ripens Being, which respects rational autonomy, promotes democratic self-determination, and decommodifies the creative process, as well as institutional structures which serve that ideal? And how can we help the bourgeoisie understand that the conditions of its own existence are in fact decaying as well and that if it wants a human future, it will find that future only in alliance with the working classes?

There are, broadly speaking, three dimensions to our strategy. First, we must build a conscious political-theological leadership capable forging this ideal and of building, conserving and transforming institutions which can serve it. As we suggested in Sanctuary and Commons, and as we will explain in more detail in a forthcoming article, it has proven very difficult to construct political-theological leadership organizations while evading sectarianism, authoritarianism, and even cults of personality. Because of this we favor an approach which focuses on identifying and cultivating leaders first, with organizational structures taking shape later once there is a critical mass of leaders with the degree of spiritual development necessary to resist such tendencies, and the wisdom and prudence to find forms of organization appropriate to their authentic tasks.

This dimension of our strategy is especially important in connection with our critique of the Sanders campaign. As we have noted, the campaign is (like most of young “New Lefts” of the past three generations) first and foremost a form of resistance to the proletarianization of the intelligentsia. This resistance is vital because it is this group which feels most keenly the alienation of labor which is the fundamental contradiction of capitalism and which thus constitutes the core constituency for communism. But the form of resistance matters a great deal. Left intellectuals are no more immune than displaced factory workers or any other social category to resisting proletarianization in a way which reflects narrow special interests rather than their higher social vocation. And we have shown that the Sanders campaign is just such a form of resistance, focused on the immediate, narrow economic interests of young, marginalized intellectuals –interests which they do not even necessarily share with their own older selves.

But what is the authentic social vocation of the intelligentsia? Intellectuals are, by nature, a cleros, a group set apart for service to the Common Good, and specifically for the functions of teaching, sanctifying, and governing. This is a function which can be carried out in many different ways, but it presupposes a much higher degree of intellectual development than most of the intelligentsia (young or old) currently possesses, including at least a mastery of the ongoing debate regarding what it means to be human, and the means of realizing that end, and an ability to decide independently where we stand with respect to that debate. This, in turn, requires a profound mastery of the liberal arts, the interpretive disciplines, the sciences, and the wisdoms. Second, it requires spiritual self-cultivation in our chosen way, in community if possible but individually if no community exists which can support our development in accord with our convictions. While we do not need to be perfect and must never imagine ourselves (or our teachers) to be perfect, we must be making real progress towards the ideals we advocate. Third, it requires further development of the skills necessary to exercise the teaching, sanctifying, and governing offices, preferably in combination.

This final qualification points us, in turn, to the second dimension of our strategy: the actual work of forging an ideal, of building institutions which can contribute to its realization, and of forming broader layers of leaders for those institutions. We have discussed this work in some detail in Sanctuary and Commons. Here we will simply reiterate the importance both of restoring the Commons –making available freely the resources people need to survive and develop in a society in which more and more human labor is becoming redundant—and institutions which centralize resources to support research, scholarship, creative activity, spiritual self-cultivation, and the development of new technologies and new ways of life. Our strategy is fundamentally one of building a new way of life as the old one disintegrates over a period of what will likely be centuries and which may take millennia and which, when understood at the highest level, never ceases.

The third dimension of our strategy is a vigorous and open alliance policy. Specifically, we must constructively engage the bourgeoisie, which will increasingly find that it must choose between a human future and displacement by a successor to Capital which takes up residence in an artificial intelligence and dispenses with human capitalists not too long after it dispenses with human workers. This includes a vigorous struggle to help the bourgeoisie understand that amortality and technological singularity will not satisfy humanity –that what we seek is to create and not to consume—and an attempt to negotiate interim solutions which help the bourgeoisie to resist the temptations of a genocidal “thinning of the herd” which would inevitably expand to include them as well. This process, as well, will take centuries or even millennia.

In the light of the rise of a enthonationalist/populist right among the working classes, reflected in the various ways in the Trump campaign, the Brexit vote and much (though not all) Euroskpeticism, many Islamic fundamentalisms, the Hindutva movement in India and the rise of nationalism in China, we must unite with the liberal bourgeoisie in defending the liberal order against resurgent fascistoid tendencies worldwide, even if this temporarily postpones struggles around the growing economic inequality in the old imperial metropoles as a result of technological change and globalization.

This does not mean that our strategy eschews struggle – even armed struggle. Indeed, we may find ourselves fighting to resist resurgent fascisms or quasifascisms born of the marginalization of the relatively privileged working classes of the former imperial metropoles (or imperial restorations projects in India, Dar-al-Islam, or China). And we may find ourselves locked in battle, over the long run, with the predecessor systems of Tipler’s Omega, which elements in Capital (or already existing AIs) which almost certainly attempt to create. But this struggle will be defensive more than revolutionary and we must resist the temptation to conclude that simply by showing ourselves the best fighters we can seize state power and remake the world. This is a fight we would undertake in alliance with the pro-human, pro-civilizational elements of the bourgeoisie, in which we would challenge them as well to be sure, but which would still leave in its wake the long hard process of creating new and better ways of living, new and better ways of being human.

There are no royal roads, only the difficult “mountain road” which leads, by twist and turns, and with many dead ends towards a true home which, however, we do not fully know, cannot fully want, and at which we never fully arrive, at least as long as we remain ourselves. Let the young try to gird themselves and go where they want. I am old now and have learned that I lead best when others gird me, and stretch out my arms, and lure me into places I would never have ventured on my own.



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[1]The axial traditions are those ways of being human which emerged from the process of religious problematization, rationalization, and democratization which took place with the crisis of the Bronze Age sacral monarchies between 1200 and 100e BCE and the emergence of specialized agriculture and crafts production and petty commodity production beginning around 800 BCE. For a further discussion of their classification as ways of Seeking Being, Justice and Liberation, and Harmony see Mansueto 2016.

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