Sanctuary and Commons

The Current Situation

Humanity stands at a critical juncture. The arc of development of the Saeculum –the metacivilizational project devoted to transcending finitude and contingency by means of innerworldly, civilizational progress– over the course of the past 500 years is forcing on us some difficult decisions which will shape profoundly what humanity is and will what we will become. And these decisions are, in fact, rather different than those which dominated spiritual and political discourse over the course of the past 150 years: i.e. the debates between capitalism and socialism, dictatorship and democracy, theism and atheism.

First, anthropogenic climate change, the product of an industrial technology depending on combustion of existing forms of matter, physical, biological, and social, in order to release energy to do work, has almost certainly progressed well past the point where significant and even catastrophic dislocations can be avoided. We have made our planet, while probably not uninhabitable, far less hospitable to the billions of human beings who call it home. A definitive solution to this problem will require the development of new sources of energy and a new technology which is no longer based on the combustion, but rather on tapping into the latent potential of matter for increased organization. Such a technology is not clearly within our sights.

At the same time, we are at the beginning, but only the beginning, of a new phase in technological progress which is gradually rendering human labor redundant–and possibly at the point of beginning to transform human nature and capacities fundamentally. Whether this represents at least a partial realization of the promise of the Saeculum, beginning at long last to free humanity from drudgery and to open up the possibility for the creative autonomy which was constitutive of the communist ideal, or simply extends marginalization and creates the conditions for passive or active genocide remains to be seen.

Second, while the global economy is still much further from definitive crisis than apocalyptic thinkers on both the left and the right are inclined to believe, both technological progress and globalization have created some new economic, political, and cultural problems. On the one hand the as technological progress drives the value of human labor power towards zero underconsumption tendencies are bound to increase. Capital will either have to create new income transfer mechanisms which allow the marginalized to participate in the consumer economy or else cease to be Capital and develop new mechanisms which allocate an ever expanding social product, whether just to a small elite or to the people as whole, outside of market mechanisms.

In the meanwhile globalization is leading to a gradual formation of a global market wage. This means a gradual improvement in living conditions in the developing world, though not to the same levels historically enjoyed by the old imperial metropoles, and a gradual decline in those metropoles, though more likely to levels comparable to Beijing and Bangalore than to Bangladesh.

Taken together, ecological, technological, and economic trends present a contradictory and uncertain demographic picture. Without significant breakthroughs on the energy front we may well face relative, if not absolute overpopulation, in the sense that the planet cannot support current or projected population levels at the standard of living which humanity is demanding. And this is not just a question of empty consumption. It is also a question of what people are actually able to do with their lives. At the same time technological progress and economic growth is creating demographic inversions which make it increasingly difficult for the wealthiest parts of the planet to support their aging, dependent populations, which are growing in advance of our ability to mobilize technological progress and adjust economic mechanisms to resolve the problems.

Politically these developments have altered fundamentally the East/West and North/South geopolitical dynamics which dominated the long twentieth century. The crisis of the Soviet Union and the option of the Communist Party of China for a political line which postpones communism into the far future and embraces a mixed social market economy has rendered the ideological struggle between capitalism and historical socialism moot. Struggles continue between North and South but they focus increasingly on who should pay the costs of mitigating climate change and on international terms of trade. The movement towards agrarian autarky and the strategy of surrounding the global city with the global countryside which dominated the Asian, African, and Latin American Left in the last century has receded if not disappeared entirely. Resistance to globalization has shifted from the old Third World to the deindustrializing metropoles of the old First World as formerly privileged workers find their labor power devalued and themselves redundant.

A laos which is increasingly at least nominally (but rarely very profoundly) literate increasingly demands higher and higher levels of direct democratic participation, often mobilizing new technologies to make this possible, while the concentration of Capital and its transformation into an impersonal force relatively independent of any national or global ruling class renders political authorities at all levels increasingly impotent. The growing divide between Capital and the managerial and technocratic elites on the one hand and the marginally productive proletariat on the other hand has, meanwhile led to the first movement –the so called alt-Right or Neoreaction– to question democracy explicitly since the fascist debacle of the 1920s and 1930s. The planet and its human inhabitants, meanwhile, desperately need effective global governance –the level at which authentic democracy seems most difficult— even as nationalisms and ethnic particularisms are resurgent and localist solutions seem the only ones to be even marginally effective.

The New Political Spectrum

All of this has, finally, lead to a recasting of the most fundamental question we have always faced: what it means to be, and above all to be human. On the one hand, what I have elsewhere called technocratic secularism is resurgent, especially in the form of transhumanism. This trend looks to technological progress to push back the limits of finitude to the point that it we approach, even if only asymptotically, the divinity to which we aspire, rendering not only religion, but also politics and economics effectively obsolete. This trend is, however, sharply divided between libertarian and social liberal, social democratic, and even communist trends. The first argue that free markets which allow natural selection across individuals and practices to operate unhindered provide the best promise for rapid technological progress. Recent years have witnessed the development of a substantial neo-reactionary trend which argues that the libertarian regime they believe is necessary to progress is incompatible with democracy and which explicitly favors enlightened absolutism on the model of the UAE or Singapore. Many also argue for what they call “human biodiversity,” by which they mean significant differences in the underlying genetic abilities of individuals or races, which they take as real, biological groups, while others argue that even if such differences exist they will soon be dwarfed by the distinction between technologically enhanced and unenhanced human beings.

Social liberal, social democratic, and communist transhumanists, on the other hand, argue that equity or even progress itself require significant state intervention. This is because they accept historical materialist or other (complexity theory) arguments that free markets do not naturally optimize innovation and/or because, based on traditional utilitarian reasoning, they believe that distribution of benefits is morally significant.

Transhumanists tend to be fundamentally secular in orientation, in the sense that they acknowledge only one world, or only one kind of world (a physical spacetime) in which human aspirations might be realized. But they differ among themselves regarding the evolutionary and adaptive value of religion, with many neoreactionaries and dark enlightenment thinks upholding its value, and New Atheists rejecting it. At its outer limits, of course, transhumanism becomes technological godbuilding.

There remain, however, numerous, diverse, and growing trends which are extremely skeptical of the technocratic ideal, even where they are not strictly opposed to secular science and technology. These trends fall broadly into three categories: 1) theistic secularists focused on an ideal of divine sovereignty, 2) those that remain faithful to various humanistic ideals focused on creating a political subject which can make humanity the master of its own destiny and 3) those focused on recovering axial ideals which recognize the priority of the spiritual.

We have argued elsewhere (Mansueto 2016) that fundamentalism, and indeed Protestantism and perhaps Asharite Sunni Islam generally are, in fact, simply theistic forms of the secular ideal. This is because they share with technocratic secularism a univocal metaphysics in which everything exists in the same way, essentially as contingent beings, and particular existents differ only in their power. Theistic secularism argues for the pre-existence of an infinitely powerful being to whom we must submit; technocratic secularism argues that we should do everything we can to create one. This is why literalism is so important to fundamentalists. They deny the reality of any higher degrees of being on which their spiritual ideal might be fulfilled. Things either happen in this world, in a way accessible to sense perception, or they doesn’t happen at all.

Fundamentalisms, we have argued, have a social base among left behind sectors across classes. This is a base shared with populists, especially those leaning to the right, and discerning the difference in the social base of these two groups is an important task. At present it seems that fundamentalisms have a stronger base in extractive sectors and populists in displaced industrial populations. This is probably because apocalyptic theologies help legitimate the exploitation of mineral and petroleum resources towards depletion, and tend to be universalist enough to support a global trade regime which allows the extractive sector to profit skyrocketing mineral rents as depletion approaches, while ethnonationalist populisms do a better job of legitimating protectionist regimes necessary to secure the position of redundant industrial capital and labor.

There remain, however, a number of liberal secular theists (mostly but not exclusively liberal Protestants) who see in technological and or political progress the realization of their spiritual ideal. These thinkers generally derive from post millennialist Calvinism, though they have often rejected many key Calvinist and even broader Christian doctrines, including not only predestination but original sin, the need for personal conversion, and even the doctrine of the Trinity and the Incarnation. What they keep is the core Reformed message that the elect are called to build God’s kingdom on earth, whether through technological progress, political reform, or both.

Among the humanistic trends we find those who look primarily to the rationally autonomous individual, the people as a body of citizens, the working classes, and the people as ethnos, gender group, or some other identity group. Liberals, those who seek meaning in the rational autonomy of the individual human person, are divided between those who see the foundation of this autonomy primarily in the institutions of private property, those who look to the rule of law and an independent judiciary, those who look primarily to liberal education, and those who recognize the necessity of social institutions, private or public, which guarantee individuals the resources necessary to make effective use of their freedom, though these arepositions not, of course, mutually exclusive. Partisans of rational autonomy are, furthermore, increasingly divided between democratic liberals who, while recognizing that the ideals of freedom and democracy may come into conflict with each other also see it as an important guarantee against both the state and powerful private social actors and republican, neocameralist, and authoritarian and monarchic liberals who argue that democracy leads inevitably to restrictions on liberty, especially private property rights. At the far right of this liberal spectrum we are seeing the re-emergence of elements which regard the enslavement of those unable to support themselves productively as at least permissible if not advisable. These are all very old debates but the challenges of the present period have brought them to the surface once again.

Democrats, those who seek meaning in the collective self-determination of the body of citizens, through the mechanisms of the state, have always been divided between those who regard democracy as compatible with strong private property rights and those who regard the state as the only effective guarantee against coercion by more powerful individuals. A third position is constituted by those who regard the state a community of communities, building on the collective self-determination of the people through the institutions of civil society, which they distinguish sharply from capitalist enterprises.

This political space, which lies close to the center of the current political spectrum, includes elements with similar policy agendas but very different fundamental priorities. It is important to distinguish ideologically between democratic liberals, for whom democratic participation is a way of holding the state accountable, social liberals, for whom the state (presumably but not necessarily or primarily democratic) is primarily a way of guaranteeing individuals the means of acting effectively on their liberal rights, and liberal social democrats, for whom Capital is an obstacle to the exercise of both liberal and democratic rights.

All of these elements should be distinguished from socialists and communists for whom the subject of human self-determination is not the body of citizens but the working classes or more specifically the proletariat. For socialists this is exercised through a mass party of the proletariat and for populists in the narodniki or campesinista sense a mass party of the peasantry. For communists the self-determining authority of the proletariat is held in trust by the conscious leadership of the proletariat, which they understand as a vanguard revolutionary party, through the periods of revolution and socialist construction until technological and spiritual progress makes authentic communism, understood as the decommodification of labor and the withering away of the state, in which full creative autonomy and free cooperation become possible.

Communists remain divided over the reasons for the crisis of their project, with some focusing on a failure of socialism to catalyze the technological progress necessary to transcend scarcity and others focusing on the failure to achieve the spiritual conditions of communism, which some, in turn, believe should be pursued gradually in alliance with axial traditions and others through a militant cultural revolution in the Maoist manner. The failure of socialism to achieve its aims has led to the resurgence of autonomist tendencies which are struggling to envision a transition which evades state control of Capital entirely, by defending and extending the commons. The most important such vision is that put forward by Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri in Commonwealth. These are not, of course, exclusive diagnoses.

By axial trends we understand those which affirm the phenomenal world as a participation, but only a participation, in Being as such, Brahman, the tathagata-garbha, the Tao, or the first principle understood in some other way. Civilizations are attempts to realize, or at least help individuals participate as fully in this principle, but our human aspirations transcend the possibilities of space and time. In this sense axials regard the secular project, which attempts the full realization of human aspirations in this world, as fundamentally mistaken, though without thereby denying the authentic civilizational achievements of the saeculum. Axials are divided by their differing metaphysical doctrines and spiritual ways, but perhaps most fundamentally by the distinction between those with an emmantionist and those with an emergentist cosmology. The first supports a more conservative and pessimistic, the latter a more progressive and optimistic politics. There are also sharp differences between those who accept and those who do not accept feminist criticisms of the patriarchal residues in axial traditions. Axials rarely support unlimited private property or free markets, but differ over the relative merits of civil society and state constraints on markets. Axials are also divided over the degree of importance they attach to the differences between their fundamental metaphysical and soteriological doctrines, with perennialists arguing for a universal esoteric core to these traditions, pluralists arguing for competing but equally valid ways which may even lead to different spiritual ends, inclusivists arguing for a single common way that their own tradition understands better than others, but which does not exclude spiritual progress or even salvation for those who practice other ways, and exclusivists for whom their own correct understanding of the way is a necessary condition for salvation. This latter position, however, generally indicates significant movement in the direction of a univocal metaphysics if not to outright fundamentalism. One group of perennialists, the traditionalists de-emphasizes the axial break and embraces an understanding of unified esoteric truth which includes the wisdom of sacral monarchic warlord civilizations. Another group, which we might call primalists, aboriginalists or indigenistas, while generally open to diverse spiritualities calls attention to the special value of the spiritualities of band, tribal, and communitarian, hunter-gatherer and horticultural societies, especially as we move to heal the earth.

Sanctuary and Commons

Where does the alternative we propose stand in the context of this spectrum?

First, regarding the fundamental question of the aims of human life, we affirm that humanity is the desire to be God. The aims of human life, in other words, while they can be advanced within the secular realm, by definition radically transcend it, because the God we desire to become –the power of Being as such– by definition transcends spacetime and thus any possible world. At the same time we affirm that the cosmohistorical process is the school of matter, the process through which we pursue what is ultimately an impossible aim, and grow towards our end in spite of our endless failure to achieve it. In this sense, we affirm with the axial traditions the transcendent nature of the ends of human life and affirm with the Saeculum the intensely meaningful nature and soteriological value of this world cosmos.

More specifically, we argue that by trying to build or become God, matter (at the level of sapient being and higher) discovers that Being is neither substance (impassive immunity to change) nor Subject (pure self-determination) but rather relationship, generativity, and transformation. It is precisely by failing to achieve divinity as substance or subject that we become the relational, generative, transformative Being we have sought all along. This process is, as we have argued at length elsewhere, expressed at the cosmological and civilizational historical levels, as well as in the spiritual trajectory of individuals.

This recognition in turn implies a very specific position in relationship to technocratic and humanistic, secular and axial alternatives. On the one hand, we regard technology as a real participation in the creative power of Being and welcome its potential to push back the limits of finitude, making routine, uncreative labor no longer necessary and perhaps significantly enhancing what humanity can accomplish. On the other hand, we regard the absolute transcendence of scarcity required by communism to be impossible, for the simple reason that our aspirations being unlimited, they can, by definition, never be met. Furthermore, we believe that even unlimited extension of contingent human capacities would never allow us to realize our authentic aim, which is to be Being as such. Technology, therefore, while it partly defines our humanity, will never fundamentally alter the human predicament.

Regarding specific technological regimes, we are argue that industrial technology, based on the combustion of existing organization in order to release energy and do work is inherently destructive and must give way to new hortic and neoalchemical technologies which tap into and catalyze the self-organizing potential of matter. Our ability to develop such technologies will likely play a major role in our ability to contain the effects of climate change and resource depletion in coming centuries.

At the economic level, we affirm the dialectical and historical materialist analysis of the alienation engendered by the commodification of labor power and the contradictions of capitalism which hold back technological progress. No one who is required to sell their labor power in order to survive can fully realize their creative potential. And the tendency of the rate of profit to decline as technological progress advances means that capitalism is inherently unfriendly to extended technological progress. Most technological progress over the course of the past five centuries has been the product of a complex interaction of market, civil society, and state mechanisms.

At the same time, we reject fundamentally the idea that socialism, a system in which they state replaces the capital markets as the principal allocator of resources for production without thereby addressing the commodification of labor power, in any sense represents a transition to communism as Marx understood it. On the contrary, it merely generalizes commodification and constitutes a new form of the primitive accumulation of capital. And socialism has its own distinctive contradictions, specifically the “scissors crisis,” in which a still alienated peasantry or proletariat refuses to produce more than it needs to survive because the civilization building priorities of the party have limited options for consumption. It is this contradiction which ultimately undermined the Soviet economy and which the Chinese, after trying to eradicate selfishness essentially overnight through a totalitarian regime of forced “study and struggle” have managed to evade only by largely abandoning not only egalitarianism but even a rudimentary social safety net and allow market pressures to mobilize essentially the entire population.

Our alternative vision of a transition centers around gradually decommodifying labor by restoring and expanding the Commons. This would take the form of a guaranteed minimum or basic income which acknowledges both the declining demand for and value of human labor power (and thus the fact that there will be many who cannot sustain themselves through their labor) and the difficult to monetize contributions made by every human being on the planet to the Commonwealth, coupled with strongly socialized access to shelter, food, clothing, transportation, healthcare, and education. The idea is that by gradually and incrementally freeing people from the necessity of selling their labor power creative autonomy would be restored without attempting a globally planned economy or eliminating free enterprise.

This restoration of basic subsistence rights would be accompanied by free or highly subsidized, but not unlimited (because of continuing limits on available resources) access to support for higher education, entrepreneurship, and other activities which contribute to human development and civilizational progress, which would be allocated using a mixture of substantively rational and market criteria. Projects would have to demonstrate both their potential contribution to human development and civilizational progress and their economic viability (according to what would likely be gradually changing measures).

Wage labor would probably not disappear entirely, but would be an option for those engaged in work which provided training and experience (apprentices and journeymen) and those who wanted more income than the Commons itself could provide and more flexibility (and less accountability) than would be available to them were they undertake an independent enterprise.

Existing private enterprise at various scales could continue to exist, but would be under increasing pressure to pay higher wages, include workers in ownership of capital, and behave in a way which was at least compatible with, and preferably advanced, the common good –while allowing significant room for the nature of that common good to remain open and contested.

In the context of such an economy, educational, religious, scientific, literary and charitable institutions would play a critical role. Their endowments, the expansion of which would be promoted by both “private” initiative in civil society and public policy, would support activities which served the common good, but which were either inherently unprofitable or which the laos, acting through either the market or the state, could not reasonably be expected to understand and/or support.

The political authority, in addition to its properly political functions, would have the responsibility for creating and maintaining the physical and legal infrastructure which the larger system would require, for defending both individuals and the commons against encroachments from private enterprises and charitable institutions, and to provide goods which require a level of centralization of resources beyond what charitable institutions could manage.

At the political level, our aim is to reconcile axial and humanistic values. This means, on the one hand, recognizing that political decisions follow from deliberation regarding fundamental questions of meaning and value as well as questions of means, and thus inevitably invoke the sacred, and that that some people are more capable of such deliberation than others (though all have something to contribute). This means that politics is irreducible sacral (though not necessarily theistic) and that monarchic representation of the sacred is inevitable and the presence of an aristocratic element within the polity –in the sense of elders with superior wisdom and prudence, NOT an hereditary elite– is valuable and to be encouraged and sought after. At the same time, our perspective is radically pluralistic, recognizing not merely the permissibility but the actual value of competing ways of being human –an element of the axial revolution (the problematization of meaning and value) which was only rarely realized, even partially, during the Axial and Silk Road Eras.

We affirm, furthermore, the definitive contributions of the liberal, democratic, and communist traditions to humanity’s understanding of politics. More specifically, we affirm the rational autonomy of the individual, whose right to act in accord with conscience must be respected as far as the the right of public order and the common good permit. We affirm as well that human institutions are social projects, subject to transformation through political action, as well as the value of democratic participation in public deliberation and the democratic accountability of the state to the people it serves. We affirm that rational autonomy and democratic self-determination are incompatible with the commodification of labor power and the concentration of Capital (though they are also incompatible with the displacement of Capital by the State). And we recognize the necessity of a conscious leadership which understands the aims of human life and the means to their achievement. What we reject in the humanistic project is the idea that legal guarantees of human rights, the creation of a democratic state, or the decommodification of labor power can by themselves make humanity the master of its own destiny, “the unique subject-object” of the cosmohistorical evolutionary process, solving the riddle of history and resolving the conflict between existence and essence, creating God by political means. More broadly, we reject the claim that the state is a privileged instrument for achieving social justice or other dimensions of the common good. It is one institution among many, necessary but not sufficient, with its own distinctive capacities and its own distinctive limitations.

The rational autonomy of the individual is best guaranteed by a combination of rule of law guaranteed by an independent judiciary, limited private property rights which gives people access to the resources necessary to act independently of others, broad access to liberal education which allows people to decide for themselves what it means to be human and a basic income and social wage which allows people to make effective use of their freedom.

Democratic participation and accountability work best when decision making is decentralized and citizens participate directly in decision making at the lowest level (e.g. hamlet or urban precinct), electing representatives to higher village/neighborhood, ward/township, urban district/county, city/prefecture, metropolitan/provincial, world city, and global levels, respecting the central role of villages and cities (with their hinterlands) as the basic units of civilization and while recognizing that the historic legacy of nation states will take a long time to transcend. This system of local council representation should be balanced by direct elections to larger jurisdictions at the city and higher levels using a format of representation which privileges debate around fundamental questions, such as a party list proportional representational system. Power by its nature involving consent, the capacity to make laws and elect the government of the day would be vested in legislatures at each level of jurisdiction constituted in this way.

Conscious leadership should take the dual form of 1) “private” political-theological or ideological leadership organizations with no formal constitutional status which aim to shape society in accord with their visions but in dialogue with others and 2) an authentic Senate representing the most accomplished and advanced leaders across all traditions and all sectors of society.

Political-theological/ideological leadership organizations would be formed by those who seek perfection in following a specific way and commit themselves to advancing it by understanding its social analysis, principles, and strategy and building institutions which embody its values, while recognizing the validity and value of other ways and rejecting any attempt at monopoly. The idea is to integrate the best aspects of the religious order and vanguard party while stripping away the aspiration to monopoly which generates authoritarian and totalitarian tendencies internally and externally.

The Senate would play the critical role in assuring that laws passed by the popular power conformed to the principles of natural law as interpreted in an ideologically, culturally, and religiously pluralistic society. Their auctoritas would be required to validate all laws and they could veto any, but they would not have the authority to make laws except by declaring a state of exception for a limited period of time when the polity faced existential threat. The Senate (or rather senates, at each level of jurisdiction) would be composed of the leaders of the various ways and the institutions they have created, with membership based on defined levels of achievement and/or indirect election, in accord with the principles of the various ways and the political dynamics of the institutions in question.

Representation of the sacral character of politics in a pluralistic context is a complex problem. One must simultaneously acknowledge that political decisions are decisions about questions of meaning and value and recognize the validity and value of plural ways. Here it is useful to invoke the ancient Athenian institution of the basileus and epynomous archons. Originally an sacred king and the high priest of the cult of Athena, the basileus became, after the democratic revolutions of the axial age, an elected magistrate who performed these same functions and, together with the epynomous archon, who was responsible for the feast of Dionysus, coordinated the liturgical calendar and acted jointly as chief magistrate in a context in which questions of meaning and value were increasingly contested and participation in deliberation increasingly democratic. The office is related to the Roman rex sacrorum and pontifex maximus from which the papacy derives.

Ideally the person filling such an office would be both an exemplar whose virtue is recognized across competing ways and demonstrate outstanding pastoral and political prudence. An indirect election by a Senate representing the leaders of the various ways, preferably for life, would ensure full autonomy in leading public deliberation regarding questions of meaning and value and guaranteeing the right and capacity of each individual and community to pursue their own way. Where such an election seems unlikely or where attempting it would induce more discord than it would heal –or conversely might create the danger of a cult of personality or of dynastic rule– the office could be rotated among senior members of the senate would would then constitute a kind of standing committee which exercised the function of sacral representation collectively.

This approach to political authority clear reflects a break with the dominance of the nation state model and emphasizes the village, the city, and certain not-necessarily urban institutions such as the temple complex, the monastery, and the liberal arts college as drivers of civilization. As noted above, however, the legacy of the nation state cannot simply be ignored and the rights of people’s to pursue distinctly nonurban ways whether aboriginal or simply rural must be respected.

It should be clear that central to our vision is a restoration of the primacy of the spiritual in a way which does not diminish the value of the secular as a participation in the creative power of Being as such. Specifically, Sanctuary and Commons represents a dual commitment in the cultural sphere. First, as noted above, we affirm both the validity and value of plural ways, religious and secular, excluding only those which promote oppression and exploitation and thus contradict the natural law accessible to and shared by all ways. Central to our vision for the future is a vigorous network of autonomous cultural institutions which develop and promote distinct and competing ways of being human, forming individuals and institutions in accord with those ways. It is, indeed, this function of sapiential and spiritual leadership, and not the political authority or the state, that we regard as the most important and leading function in human civilization, though for it to flourish the state must remain independent of control by any one spiritual authority or any coalition between them and defend and protect the right of each individual to find and pursue their own way.

Second, Sanctuary and Commons itself proposes, as a natural response to the creation of a unified global civilization, a syncretic way of ways which represents a synthesis across the axial and secular (especially humanistic) traditions. We have charted this way briefly in the The Ways of Wisdom, and it will be elaborated in greater detail in our Summa Sapientiae Gentium. We have, finally already summarized this way briefly above, at the beginning of this essay:

Humanity is the desire to be God. The aims of human life, in other words, while they can be advanced within the secular realm, by definition radically transcend it, because the God we desire to become –the power of Being as such– by definition transcends spacetime and thus any possible world. At the same time we affirm that the cosmohistorical process is the school of matter, the process through which we pursue what is ultimately an impossible aim, and grow towards our end in spite of our endless failure to achieve it. In this sense, we affirm with the axial traditions the transcendent nature of the ends of human life and affirm with the Saeculum the intensely meaningful nature and soteriological value of this world.

More specifically, we argue that by trying to build or become God, matter (at the level of sapient being and higher) discovers that Being is neither substance (impassive immunity to change) nor Subject (pure self-determination) but rather relationship, generativity, and transformation. It is precisely by failing to achieve divinity as substance or subject that we become the relational, generative, transformative Being we have sought all along. This process is, as we have argued at length elsewhere, expressed at the cosmological and civilizational historical levels, as well as in the spiritual trajectory of individuals.

Strategy for the Longue Durée

How do we propose to advance this vision? As should already be apparent, we reject secular strategies which focus almost exclusively on the state, control of which is assumed to provide a privileged position from which all other social institutions can be transformed. We propose, instead, a spiritual/civilizational/institutional strategy in which the state is treated as one institution among many, critical, to be sure, to certain key structural transformations, such as the restoration of the commons, but by no means the authentic commanding heights of a civilizational project which, we argue, in fact has no such privileged site.

The first stage in such a strategy is the construction of a conscious political-theological leadership. By a conscious leadership we mean a group of individuals who 1) engage questions of meaning and value and the highest levels, independently choosing for themselves where they stand on such questions in the context of a mastery of historic and contemporary debates, 2) seek perfection within the context of their chosen way, through disciplined spiritual practice individually and/or in community, and 3) have mastered political and/or pastoral prudence and historic and contemporary debates around strategy in such a way as to enable them to contribute to developing and advancing the work of identifying, cultivating, and mentoring emerging, established, and high value leaders and building, conserving, and transforming institutions. Such leadership is ideally pursued in community and indeed in the context of a an organization which allows coordinated action, but unlike past efforts to create such a leadership, which centered on founding a religious order or vanguard political party of some kind, our focus is not on establishing an organization but on identifying and building relationships with individuals and cultivating each other’s capacities, with the expectation that community and organization will emerge organically from the resulting network, avoiding sectarian disputes over ideology, leadership, or collective resources.

What such a conscious leadership does is, fundamentally, to 1) forge a vision of what it means to be human, and a strategy for realizing that vision, 2) to seek perfection in accord with that vision and to help each other and other human beings achieve that same perfection, through teaching, spiritual direction, liturgy, and community building, and 3) to identify, cultivate and mentor other leaders and build, conserve, transform other organizations and institutions.

In this context each institutional structure or sector constitutes a theatre in our struggle and each organization a battlefield. The aim, however, is not control but power, not the ability to determine exactly what does and does not happen, but rather the ability to realize our vision individually and collectively.

Ours is a longue duree strategy. We work at a scale of centuries, millennia, and aeons, not election cycles or decades. We work across multiple generations and lifetimes. And while we recognize certain key strategic aims the realization of which we believe are essential to the next steps in the human civilizational project (a new alchemical technology, the decommodification of labor power, a new polity integrating global governance with subsidiarity, conscious leadership with democratic participation and rational autonomy, and a new way of ways which recognizes the fundamentally theotic character of the human project and the fact that it is precisely through frustration of this aim that we progress along the way), we envision no final solution to the riddle of history.

While we believe that the challenges faced by humanity are profound and the crisis of secular civilization –and especially of its technological and economic regimes– are real, we reject apocalyptic thinking and the insurrectional politics, armed, pacifist, or electoral which it encourages. Bad things are going to happen, but there will also be good. The transformation we need will take centuries at a minimum and the results of that transformation will be unsatisfactory. But we will grow along the way. Indeed, the results will be unsatisfactory in significant measure because we will grow along the way and know better than we do now, though still far less than we someday will.

As we approach the present period we focus our efforts on the arenas in which we enjoy a comparative advantage: forging a vision and strategy and identifying, cultivating, and mentoring emerging, established, and high value leaders. Where we can, we work to build, conserve, and transform institutions. This is our own particular calling and contribution. But we regard all with a commitment to human development and civilizational progress as potential allies, even where their understanding of those aims and the means of realizing them is different from our own. We refuse cooperation only with those who teach the hatred of other ways and other peoples and/or the necessity and the inevitability of the exploitation labor and the oppression of women, which we believe is the foundation of all other forms of oppression.

The historic moment in which we find ourselves is dangerous. But it is also pregnant with possibilities. Which possibilities are realized and how is up to us.

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The Crisis of the Republican Party and the Danger of Fascism

The 2016 US Presidential Primary Election cycle has witnessed a new stage in the disintegration of the Republican Party.  Once the principal political vehicle for a visionary –if also deeply flawed– civilizational ideal which joined elements of the Puritan ideal of a Holy Commonwealth with a technocratic secular vision centered on pushing back the limits of finitude by means of scientific, technological, and economic progress, the party has degenerated into a loose coalition in which fascistoid right wing populist elements are increasingly dominant over religious social conservatives, neoconservatives, libertarians, and neoliberals.

 More specifically, the Presidential campaign of New York real estate magnate Donald Trump, with its fascistoid mobs and its charismatic leader who sets himself outside liberal norms and rule of law, raises the question of whether or not we face an authentic danger of fascism, and if so in precisely what form. If not, then what specifically is happening, what does it mean, and how should we respond?

We will begin with an analysis of the historic phenomena which constitute our points of reference: the history of the Republican Party and the history of fascism as a political trend. We will then situate both in the context of the broader global situation and the specific situation of the United States. This will shed important light on the significance of the Trump campaign and the situation in the Republican Party.  We will conclude with strategic, operational, and tactical directions.


The Republican Party

 One of the defining characteristics of the current political situation in the United States is the effective transformation of the Republican Party from a center-right “progressive-conservative” party linking neoliberalism with moderate religious social conservatism into something more like the parties of the European New Right. This is an especially dangerous phenomenon given the fact that the Republican Party remains one of the two principal political parties in the United States, controlling most state governments and both houses of Congress and with some remaining, albeit rapidly declining, possibility of recapturing the Presidency. In the light of these developments it is worth considering the evolution of the party and assessing its current social basis, political valence, and likely trajectory. In order to do this we will need to consider both political-economic and ethnoreligious factors[1], as both play a significant role in defining the US political party system.

The architects of the US political system were profoundly skeptical about political parties, which were only beginning to emerge in Europe and which they regarded as manifestations of the great evil of faction. They designed what might be called a “notables” system which encouraged the election of the most prominent citizens of each community while creating a complex of mechanisms, described in detail in Federalist 10, to discourage the formation of stable majority factions generally, and to ensure that the working classes in particular were never able to use the democratic element in the political structure to leverage their numerical majority in a way which might allow them to threaten the interests of the propertied classes.

Representative state structures are, however (as Madison himself recognized), fundamentally about representing contending interests in complex societies in which contending sectors of society are also sufficiently dependent on each other to make political monopoly unrealistic. The first US party system[2], which pitted Federalists against Democratic Republicans, was fundamentally defined by a contest between mercantile and manufacturing interests in the Northeast and agrarian interests elsewhere. But it also corresponded closely with the division between regions originally settled[3] out of Puritan East Anglia (and to a lesser extent the Reformed Netherlands) and those settled out of other parts of England or with non-English majorities. The Federalists were also inclined to support Great Britain in the global geopolitical contest underway at the time, while the Democratic Republicans supported the French –an alignment which, despite the fact that it put them on the victorious side of the Napoleonic Wars, sealed the demise of the Federalist Party in the United States.

This fundamental division was reproduced but also elaborated significantly, in both political-economic and ethnoreligious terms, in the second, third and fourth party systems, which stand in relation to the first like variations on a foundational theme which never quite achieved full sonata-allegro form. The Whigs and the Republicans represented both the more advanced sections of the bourgeoisie (first textiles, then steel) and successive manifestations of the Puritan project –the Second Great Awakening and its associated social reform movements– though with a gradually increasing capacity to recruit non-Puritan local elites outside the areas of East Anglian and New England settlement, especially Scandinavian as opposed to German Lutherans. Democrats represented agrarian interests and those of the immigrant working class not captured by the Evangelical United Front, including not only Catholics but also Southern Baptists, Methodists, and Episcopalians. German Lutherans leaned Democratic. Northern Episcopalians, Presbyterians and German Reformed, and Reconstructionists generally were more or less equally divided.

The political-economic and ethnoreligious definitions of the US party system were themselves intimately related to each other. The Federalist, Whig, and Republican Parties represented the “progressive” sectors of Capital not just in the sense of representing the technological cutting edge. They also represented a “national bourgeois” political project. Against the Southern landed elite, which sought to develop the United States as agrarian export economy, the Federalist, Whig, and Republican Parties envisioned an economy centered predominantly around domestic production for domestic consumption. The principled core of the Republican Party was, in fact, explicitly anticolonial and anti-imperialist. Indeed, it is not too much to say that the arc of development which led from the Federalist through the Whig and eventually to the Republican Parties was simply the political expression of the emergence of the US bourgeoisie as a hegemonic ruling class capable of uniting behind itself the majority of the diverse peoples of the United States in service to a civilizational ideal which identified industrialization and capitalist development with God’s own work of redemption[4].

No sooner had the Republican Party triumphed in the 1860 elections and the Civil War, however, than the global situation of the United States began to change. Precisely because of the state led investment policies of the predominantly Republican governments in the post Civil War Period (the Homestead Act, the Morrill Land Grant Act, subsidies for the railroads, etc.) the United States was transformed, within less than 50 years into an advanced industrial economy subject to all the contradictions of advanced capitalism, including the tendency of the rate of the profit to decline as the economy becomes more technology and capital intensive, and a tendency for Capital to respond to this contradiction by redeploying to low technology, low wage regions and activities on the periphery. In the case of the US this meant the acquisition of Puerto Rico, Cuba, and the Philippines from Spain and the transformation of the Monroe Doctrine from a doctrine of solidarity with other American national liberation movements into an alibi for emerging imperialism.

Under these new circumstances, with the United States now towards the top rather than at the bottom of the hierarchy of industrialization, the free trade Democratic Party became a more natural vehicle for the most advanced sectors of Capital, which were increasingly globalist in their orientation.  This was a good fit for the Democrats, who had largely captured the immigrant Catholic working class, partly by resisting Republican/Protestant  efforts to police personal morality, and partly because their support for Jim Crow in the South was seen as protecting Northern workers from the threat of African American competition. The alliance between the advanced sectors of Capital and the working classes took decades to negotiate, but was finally sealed in 1932 as forward thinking elements in the bourgeoisie recognized the need to address the profound underconsumption tendencies exposed by the Great Depression through public works, fiscal and monetary policy, carefully regulated unionization, and transfer payments. What remained of the Southern landed elite remained part of the coalition largely because the New Deal and the Second World War expanded state led investments in the South, providing an economic road forward following the mechanization of agriculture and the beginnings of the Great Migration. [5]

Significant elements in the Republican Party –especially those in higher technology sectors which benefited from free trade and those with investment abroad, which understood the need for a more globalist foreign policy– supported these developments. Indeed, by the 1950s it would not be too much to say that the United States was very close to a new Era of Good Feelings, with a broad social liberal consensus in favor of New Deal policies and the parties divided as much by historic ethnoreligious and regional cultures as by social base or public policy. Republicans from the Northeast, the upper Midwest, and the Pacific Coast were increasingly voting with the Democrats on almost all important issues.

In this context the Republican Party faced a profound crisis. It was not clear that the party had a distinctive vision, that it represented the organic interests of any particular sector or sectors of Capital, or that had a stable mass base. This crisis was brought home to the party when the Democrats, overcoming the objection of their Southern wing, threw their support behind at least the more modest demands of the Civil Rights movement.  What remained to define Republican identity except a commitment, which had to be articulated in increasingly subtle ways, to the ethnoreligious superiority of the old Puritan elites and their closest allies?

There were two broad approaches to this crisis[6]. On the Left a group of Republican leaders met in 1962 in Cambridge to found the Ripon Society. They articulated a vision which might have contributed significantly to the policy discussion in the US, embracing the goals of the New Deal and the Great Society, including support for Civil Rights, which they saw as part of their party’s abolitionist heritage, but arguing for an approach which was less bureaucratic and state centered, with greater focus on non-means tested income transfers such as a negative income tax and a greater role for what today would be called “civil society” organizations. In this regard they made many of the same points made by Christian Democrats in Europe and Red Tories in the UK. But they were also self-conscious advocates of what they called a “natural aristocracy” which they believed was based on authentic excellence and were largely oblivious to the ethnoreligious tensions and culture wars which were about to transform US politics.

At the same time, a well-defined right wing developed in the Republican Party based in lower technology industry (such as textile mills in the South) and extractive interests (mining and ranching) in the West. This group began to attract a wide range of right leaning intellectuals, from traditionalist –including Catholic– conservatives focused on the “threat” of communism, through Straussians, Austrian School neoliberals, Objectivists and other libertarians, and eventually Jewish scholars concerned about what they saw as soft Democratic Party support for Israel. This is the wing that captured the party briefly during the 1964 election cycle.

The future of the Republican Party was, in fact, written by a leader who embraced much of the Ripon platform, including establishment of the Environmental Protection Agency, a negative income tax in order to provide everyone in the country with a Guaranteed Minimum Income, and rapprochement with both the Soviet Union and China. That leader was Richard Nixon. But he also embraced an electoral strategy –the so called Southern Strategy developed by advisor Kevin Phillips, which took as its point of departure Goldwater’s unprecedented 1964 victory across the Deep South and the effective schism in the Democratic Party which resulted in George Wallace’s victory in the same states in 1968.

What Phillips pointed out was that with the Democrats taking the lead on Civil Rights, the African American vote was more or less permanently theirs. Republicans needed to focus on disaffected white southerners. Gradually the strategy was extended to appeal to others alienated by the new social movements of the 1960s: a counterculture which questioned “traditional family values” and an antiwar movement which, for the first time, named US imperialism and questioned the simple identification of the cause of “truth and justice” with “the American Way.” At the ethnoreligious level this meant aggressively building a base outside the old Puritan elites among both Catholics and historically Democratic Southern Evangelical Protestants.

The Southern Strategy was modified in the 1980s when elements in the party attempted to draw on F.A. Hayek’s evolutionary theory of social forms[7] to build an ideological bridge between neoliberals and social conservatives. Hayek regards what he calls “the extended order of human cooperation” as the product of individuals competing to survive and thrive under conditions of scarcity. In this process they develop practices (technological, economic, political, and cultural). Some work and become part of an enduring tradition. Others do not and are discarded. Language, the family, religion, and the market system are all among these “spontaneous” forms of organization, which he sets apart from rationally appealing but ultimately doomed attempts at social engineering and central planning.

This discourse was powerful enough to temporarily unite the ideologically diverse elements in the Republican cadre core, which was otherwise no more cohesive than any of the numerous left wing “United Fronts” formed by the sectarian Left in the same period, and more specifically to convince religious social conservatives, nationalist and racist populists, and neoliberals that they were all on the same team. It helped that this came at a moment when anti-imperialist victories in Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Angola, Mozambique, and Guinea-Bissau, Ethiopia, Iran, and Nicaragua, convinced much of core Capital to abandon its geopolitical caution and support a more aggressive political-military policy. This was the “Reagan Moment,” which the Right believed represented a fundamental realignment, but which was really just a tactical alliance catalyzed by conditions which were conjunctural rather than periodic or epochal.  By the end of the 1980s the Republican Party had returned to the odd combination of racist innuendo and talk of a “kinder gentler America” in which a “thousand points of light” would join to address social injustice with the assistance of streamlined but much more efficient welfare state which had characterized Republican politics since the time of Nixon.

The evolution of the Republican Party since then has been driven by two main dynamics. The first of these is the increasing dominance of the “imperial management” function of the US presidency over its function as Chief Executive for specifically US capitalist –or any other– interests. This is a shift that the Democratic Party has fully embraced. And effective leadership of the Imperium often means taking a less aggressive political-military stand than suits the interests of the US defense/aerospace sector and, more generally, sacrificing the interests of specific sectors of Capital, including US Capital, to those of Capital and Empire generally. This has won the Republican Party support from a much wider range of capitalist sectors than the results of its first turn to the Right in 1964 would have suggested was possible. At various times defense/aerospace, energy, commercial banking, retail trade, and even such historically Democratic sectors as real estate, construction, and investment banking have swung behind the Republicans as the Democrats took seriously the responsibility of managing the Empire for Capital as a whole, even when this required sacrifices from one or another capitalist interests.

One might think that this was bringing the Republican Party back to its roots as the party of the national bourgeoisie, except under conditions when this class stance is no longer progressive. But this would be a mistake. There is no true national bourgeoisie, at least in the US at this point in history. While it has been largely the less technologically advanced sectors of Capital which have supported the Republicans, this is by no means uniform and in fact many sectors have shifted their support around quite a bit through the last several election cycles. It would be more accurate to say that while Republicans retain a core constituency among the least advanced sectors technologically, they have positioned themselves as the party of the immediate interests of a collection of shifting capitalist sectors as opposed to a party of long term imperial management.

Their focus on imperial management has meant that the Democrats, for their part, have gradually lost the support of workers who have seen their position eroded by technological progress and globalization. In accord with their integrative and ameliorative strategy the Democrats have not entirely ignored the concerns of the working classes, but what they have offered –very modest support for education and retraining—has made it clear to the working class that they will not be released from increasing market pressures. This has in turn left “white” workers increasingly receptive to appeals based on racism, religious social conservatism, nationalism, etc.

The second dynamic has been more subtle. While Republicans in office have delivered for their capitalist constituents, even where it has hurt the long term interests of the Empire, they have not delivered for the “white” working class base they have courted, even on such issues as race, immigration, trade, or abortion. There simply isn’t any sector of capital which has a strong interest in limiting immigration or abortion (which facilitates work force participation). Capital has a political interest in the continuing racial division of the working class but not in white supremacy or a violent race war. And only a few sectors have an interest in a more restrictive trade policy, and even then not one which would save very many jobs. This has meant that in order to continue to make the “Southern” strategy work, Republican candidates have had to intensify their racist rhetoric at a time when the social sectors towards which it is directed have become more and more desperate economically.

Both of these dynamics have been strengthened by a liberal campaign finance regime and democratized party structures which makes it possible for self-funding candidates and rogue funders to disrupt long standing institutional structures. Reagan’s victory represented a decision on the part of key elements in core Capital to accelerate the collapse of the Soviet Union and the implementation of a global neoliberal regime. Recent developments in the Republican Party have, on the other hand been driven by the largely autonomous interventions of individual and highly idiosyncratic funders such as the Koch Brothers or by self-funding and self-promoting candidates such as Donald Trump.



 All of this brings us to the question of fascism. Has the degeneration of the Republican Party created a real danger of fascism? Or is it simply complicating the business of imperial management and siphoning off working class resistance to technological change and globalization which might otherwise be more easily captured by the Left? In order to answer this question we need to understand exactly what fascism is.

This question must be answered at a number of distinct but related levels: ideological, psychosocial, political, economic –and grand-strategic. At the ideological level fascism is a variant of what we have called populist secularism, which seeks to forge the people as ethnos into a political subject which will make humanity the master of its own destiny. But it defines ethnicity in a distinctly racist and antisemitic way.[8]  Fascist ideology serves to hegemonized and mobilize a mass base in the working class and petty bourgeoisie in order to serve the interests of Capital under very specific social conditions. At the psychosocial level, fascism is defined by an authoritarian personality which seeks to escape from the freedom –but also the egoism and anomie– of bourgeois society in submission to a leader who represents a higher national or religious identity[9]. At the political level this social psychology is captured by a disciplined cadre party built on a model borrowed from Lenin. At the political economic level fascism is a mass movement of sectors of the working class, petty bourgeoisie, and small capital which feel left behind by the course of development of actually existing capitalism but for whom socialism does not represent a credible alternative, but seems, rather to promise only further proletarianization and instrumentalization. And at the grand-strategic level fascism militarized and mobilized this  population in service to an attempt on the part of the ruling class of a late industrializing capitalist society to secure a colonial empire which will allow them to ameliorate the internal contradictions of advanced capitalism. [10]

Let us consider each of these elements in turn.

While there have been a number of very different fascist ideologies they all derive from a common lineage: the populist secularism which emerged in the nineteenth century with the emergence of the nation-state, which looks to the people as ethnos or cultural unity (as against the rationally autonomous individual, the people as demos or body of formally equal citizens, or the proletariat and its vanguard party), to create the political subject which makes humanity the master of its own destiny. In this sense it is quite different from any sort of authentic conservatism rooted in the traditions of great axial ways. This is because it proposes to solve the fundamental problem of human existence –that while finite and contingent, we seek to Be necessarily, and thus to be God– through innerworldly political action rather than through spiritual self-cultivation. It also has nothing to do with free market capitalism of any kind, liberal, neoliberal, libertarian, or Objectivist (though it does share with Objectivism an obsession with unique, “superior,” individuals).

While this ideology can be traced back to thinkers like Herder and others and while it drew significantly on Romanticism and on Nietzsche’s philosophy of power, it was, above all Heidegger who gave the doctrine its classic statement. Being, for the later Heidegger, manifests itself in a people. It does this through and only through the voice of the few who help it to discover its “god,” a sort of mythos under which Being is revealed.

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

 A Volk is only a Volk if it receives its history through the discovery of its god, through the god, which through history compels it in a direction and so places it back in being.  Only then does it avoid the danger of turning only on its own axis …[11]

Populist secularism comes in both left and right varieties. Michael Millerman[12] has tried to distinguish between these, or at least between left and right variants of Heideggerianism, arguing that left Heideggerians define identity in terms of difference (as a struggle to conserve their own distinct identities against the cosmopolitanism promoted by an expanding imperium)  while right Heideggerians define it in terms of event (a founding event which defines their identity by revealing their “god.”). There may be some merit to this argument as a way of distinguishing deconstructionist Heideggerians from Heidegger himself and his followers on the New European Right. But this grants both the deconstructionist claim that ethnicity is a pure social construct constituted by pure difference and what Millerman frankly admits is a semifoundationalist theory of ethnicity that while acknowledging that ethnogenesis is an historical process, seeks and accepts a single canonical founding event which defines what it means to be a member of a specific people once and for all. Both of these approaches are oversimplifications.

We cannot consider the question of ethnicity in detail here. At the most basic level, however, ethnicity is a particular way of being human, rooted in definite material conditions (the geology, ecosystem, and demographics of a particular land), ordered to a specific variant of a broader civilizational ideal, and lived through a definite complex of institutional structures. Because all of these elements are themselves contested and changing, ethnic identity itself is also, always changing. But it is not simply an arbitrary boundary. It is an actual way of life.

Distinguishing between fascism and other populisms requires that we consider a variety of economic, political, and ideological factors. Populism developed along with nation-states and like this process its political valence was ambiguous from the beginning. Nation states did create a vehicle through which democratic aspirations could be expressed, but they also fractured broader identities with a strong cosmopolitan element, such as Christendom and Dar-al-Islam and always involved some element of what today would be called ethnic cleansing. In Spain and later in Latin America for example 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 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.”

Antisemitism has often been closely connected with populism in Christendom. This was especially true after the Augustinian reaction of the thirteenth century and the emergence of a concept of divine sovereignty –reflex of the emerging absolutist state—made the Jewish refusal to submit to the Christian God an intolerable mark of rebellion. Later Jews, always carriers of a strong tradition of critical rationality rooted in Talmudic scholarship, were rejected because this rationality undercut romantic identification with emerging nationalities.

In the United States, constituted not just by waves of immigration from diverse parts of the planet, but also by foundational settlements from diverse parts of England, the Netherlands, Germany, and Spain –and by the African slave trade and the conquest of the northern part of Mexico– the concept of peoplehood has been especially problematic. New England, settled out of East Anglia, was the font of a variant of American identity defined by Puritanism. As Weber pointed out in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, Calvinism forced on its adherents an intense introspection focused on ascertaining whether or not one was among the elect. Hard work, saving, and investment were regarded as signs of election, and Puritanism thus encouraged capitalist development. What Weber misses is the fact that those left behind by the process of capitalist development found their own ways of asserting their elect status, something reflected in multiple waves of evangelicalism in “left behind” regions, especially Greater Appalachia, and of variant ways of demonstrating usefulness to society –for example through social reform efforts—in the metropoles. The Tidewater and Deep South, on the other hand, was settled by elements of English society with strong Cavalier and even Norman identities –with a younger son, gentry ethos dominant in the Tidewater, given a Catholic inflection in Maryland and an Anglican inflection elsewhere, and a full blown aristocratic ethos, further deformed by the fact that many of the original settlers came by way of the brutal slave colonies of the West Indies, in the Carolinas. Here feudal ideals of right by conquest mixed the Lockean argument that slavery was permissible only as punishment for a crime which would otherwise deserve death and fantasies of a restored “classical” republicanism to legitimate a system of chattel slavery. Ideas of a single American identity remained very weak.  In between the strongly commercial identity defined by early Dutch settlement and an ethos of tolerance encouraged by Quaker and German pietist settlement set a tone which created space into which diverse new waves of immigrants could move and carve out their own variants of an American identity.

It was part of the evil genius of Kevin Phillips’ Southern Strategy to link an understanding of American identity rooted in the Protestant Ethic but increasingly embraced in the postwar period by the second and third generation descendants of Catholic immigrants in the Northeast and Midwest with an understanding of American identity as fundamentally “white” –a negative identity indicating freedom from the caste stigma and menial labor burdens inherited by African Americans– which derived from the Tidewater and Deep South, and used as a linking ideology in the years following Reconstruction to draw Greater Appalachia into its political orbit. The result was a distinctive form of racism which stigmatized the most exploited sectors of the population, African Americans, incorrectly identified as making up most of the recipients of social welfare transfer payments, and new immigrants, especially from Mexico and other parts of Latin America as lazy, indolent, “takers,” and which identified both as congenitally criminal, even though their only conceivable collective “crime” was precisely that committed by Catholic immigrant and Appalachian workers and farmers, or at least their ancestors: resistance to or flight from statebuilding, capitalist or protocapitalist conquerors, whether in Europe, the United States, or both.

That the single largest and most militant sector of the Republican base has embraced a racist form of populism as defined above, even more so than fundamentalist variants of evangelical Protestantism or reactionary variants of Catholicism now seems clear. The Hayek inspired neoliberal-religious social conservative definition of the Republican Party has given way to the Phillips inspired definition of the party as racist, nationalist,  productivist, and populist.  And the movement clearly draws on the classic fascist strata: historically privileged workers and members of the petty bourgeoisie and small capital threatened by technological change and globalization. Finally, the Republican base clearly exhibits strong signs of an authoritarian personality disorder is fairly clear, as evidenced by the great pleasure taken in roughing up protesters and the willing denial of the obvious faults in their Leader. This point has, indeed, been documented by a recent survey-research comparing Trump’s supporters to those of other Republican candidates.[13]

But this is not by itself sufficient for fascism. Two elements are still in doubt: a cadre party, and an attempt on the part of some significant sectors of capital to militarize the population in order to secure a colonial empire.

It might be argued that the NAZIs and other successful fascist parties developed much of their organizational capacity after coming to power. This is true. But the attempt to build a cadre organization in nearly all cases predates the ascent to power and we as yet see no such organization forming around Trump and it is not at all clear that we will. And without a disciplined cadre party, the basic design of which fascism borrowed from the communist movement, it is not at all clear that the movement would have been especially effective.

The final feature which distinguishes fascism is the fact that the mass fascist movement is mobilized by bourgeoisies anxious to either defend or create a colonial empire the super exploitation of which can help ameliorate the contradictions of capitalist development, providing super profits which can finance both support for effective demand on the part of their own working classes and investment in the military spending which is the principal source of scientific and technological development in advanced capitalist countries. As such, it is a phenomenon of late rising imperial powers (such as Germany, Italy, or Japan) or of imperial powers in decline (such as Portugal and Spain).  Left wing populism, on the other hand, is a phenomenon of colonized peoples seeking independence and self-determination.

It is not at all clear that this is the situation of the United States. While it is certainly true that the United States has acted, in the absence of a global state structure which can attend to the interests of Capital globally, in loco imperium and the President of the United States, in loco Imperator, and while the US is broadly identified with and resisted as an imperial power, the long range trend is neither towards the consolidation nor the erosion of a specifically US imperialism, but rather towards the transformation of Capital into a fully autonomous global power separate not only from any national interests but even from the bourgeoisie as a social class. Globally, the interests of Capital at this point are not in expanding competing colonial empires but rather in continuing its emancipation of at least partially democratized nation state structures altogether, so that it can continue the downward pressure on the value of labor power exerted by technology and globalization, while creating global mechanisms better capable of managing Empire than the current ad hoc structure built out of nation state and international organization elements.

The specific challenges faced by Capital, are, however, daunting and present both authentic opportunities and grave dangers for humanity, in the context of which the rise of authoritarian populism is significant indeed. Capital will have to find a way to contain and manage climate change without compromising its basic interests and to determine whether or not, as technological progress drives the value of labor power towards zero, it has to reach an accommodation with an increasingly impoverished and marginalized global proletariat, and share the enormous wealth which of the planet, if only to contain underconsumption and social pathology or if, instead, it can emancipate itself from consumer demand –and thus from the constraints imposed by a massive global surplus population.

The first of these options could, as technological progress approached the elimination of scarcity, actually constitute a form transition to communism, skipping a socialist stage –though not class struggle– entirely. This is a scenario which merits further investigation, but it is outside the scope of this investigation.

The second option, on the other hand, raises the prospect of Capital undertaking mass annihilations, as it struggled to contain mass unrest and social pathology which became increasingly explosive precisely to the extent that human labor power became redundant.  Such a process would, undoubtedly, have to be carried out piecemeal, with racist and anti-immigrant pogroms alternating with Earth First antinatalism and “triaging” of “hopeless” Third World populations.

What this suggests is that the Trump campaign is probably not a step towards classical fascism. But it could very well be part of a process which prepares some sectors of the population to participate in genocidal activities which support a hidden global aim of annihilating the working classes. We thus prefer to stick with the term “fascistoid.”

This said, our strategic, operational, and tactical response to the Trump campaign should not be too different than it would be if the danger it presented was of a more “classical” fascism. This is not the time for socialist maximalism of the sort represented by Bernie Sanders, much less for left-wing communist attacks on the “social fascism” of the more progressive elements in Capital. On the contrary, we must build a broad popular front of all those forces which stand for humanity and for civilization, however conceived, and whatever their social base. This means, at present, supporting both Hilary Clinton’s campaign for President and any credible effort to salvage the Republican Party from its fascistoid self-destruction.

Within the context of this popular front we must struggle to help the more visionary sectors of Capital realize that the only human future for this planet consists in sharing the wealth made possible by technological progress and globalization –and we must compel those that cannot see this to yield. In the short run this means reducing the intensity of market pressures which are driving privileged workers in Europe and North America towards authoritarian populism.It also means struggling to demilitarize the police and bring an end to the mass incarceration of the African American and other historically oppressed communities as a first step towards disabling what has become an increasingly autonomous repressive state apparatus which operates more or less without reference to the explicit directions of the more democratically accountable aspects of the state structure.

In the longer run it means the creation of a restored Commons from which all can draw freely in order to survive and prosper. This route crosses the boundary between reform and revolution not with the seizure of state power or the expropriation of Capital, but with the decommodification of labor power and the redefinition of a post-scarcity society as one of asymptotically unlimited creativity rather than asymptotically unlimited consumption.

This process will be a difficult one.  As we have argued elsewhere, industrial technology, which is focused on the combustion of existing forms of organization, physical, biological, and (metaphorically) social in order to release the energy necessary to do work cannot transcend scarcity and will in fact ultimately destroy the ecosystem which makes human life possible, destroy the social fabric which nurtures us, and alienate humanity from its creative potential. Only a new technological regime focused on cultivating the potential latent in existing forms of matter, what we have called an hortic or neoalchemical technology, can lead to a world of authentic flourishing for all forms of complex organization, life, intelligence, and sapience. Such a technology is, at best, in its infancy.

But if the technological conditions for communism are difficult to achieve, the spiritual conditions are more difficult still. This is because, as Marx himself recognized implicitly, communism … understood as the resolution of the contradiction … between existence and essence” is nothing less than an attempted theosis. And yet asymptotically unlimited creativity is not the same as the power of Being as such. Ultimately our nature as human beings, not because it is ineradicably selfish, but precisely because it aims at divinity, points us beyond any possible innerworldly fulfillment. We will, in other words, always and only want to do more. The material condition for communism is the transcendence of scarcity, and this condition can be realized only asymptotically. The spiritual condition for communism requires that we realize that the power of Being as such is not something we can ever have, but rather something to which, in relational, transformative generativity, we contribute.

This opens up the possibility for a constructive engagement with authentic conservatives and a sharp struggle with populist secularism. By authentic conservatives I mean those who root themselves in the practice of primal or axial spiritual disciplines, and for whom the basis of their conservatism is not an infatuation with one set of secular idols –the marketplace or the race/people/nation- as opposed to others (the individual, the citizen, or the proletariat) but rather an affirmation of the priority of the spiritual over the temporal. A restored Commons is possible only with a restored Sanctuary, a complex of institutions, reflecting the full and rich diversity of humanity’s spiritual ways, which can ripen Being along multiple pathways, transforming our constitutive desire to be God into an authentic participation in divine creativity.

This means struggling against the residual patriarchy which still darkens our sanctuaries as well as a struggle to break the de facto alliance with the more backward sectors of Capital which has characterized even most authentic conservatives. The principal reason why primal and axial spiritual traditions and the ethnic identities with which they have become associated are so susceptible to mobilization by the Right is their failure to address humanity’s true “original sin,” the patriarchal appropriation of female generative power which accompanied the development of metal technology, the advent of war as an economic development strategy, and the emergence of slavery and tributary social formations. Our engagement with conservatives must be a critical engagement with patriarchal structures and ideology. Not until we have wiped the ba’alim forever from our lips will we be able to achieve authentic sainthood, sagehood, or enlightenment.

Special attention must be devoted to practitioners of the European neopagan ways, many of whom have been won over to or are increasingly conciliating the fascistoid right, drawn by the analyses of thinkers such as Collin Cleary, Pierre Krebs, and Alexandr Dugin who, while rejecting any identification with historic fascism, have linked a critique of market  cosmopolitanism with an ethnic particularism which strongly invokes themes of “white” and European identity.

At the same time, we must challenge the claim of populist secularism to represent a conservatism of any kind and make it clear to those tempted by it that its promises are just as false, and its invocation of authentic primal and axial spiritualties just as opportunistic as that of other secularisms. We must shift the allegiance of those drawn to populism from an identity embraced as an “escape from freedom” to an ideal and a practice which cultivates authentic spirituality.

These are difficult tasks. Becoming a mature leader means having a longue durée perspective. We must think, in terms of addressing the most immediate problems, such as climate change and the impact of globalization and technology, in terms of centuries or millennia, not decades. The longer range aims of humanity will be realized over a far longer time than this. Indeed, the journey is endless. But it is our journey, the journey which defines us and in which we find our only possible fulfillment.

Let us continue …


[1] That political parties represent, among other things, social classes and class fractions as well as different sectors of the economy, while associated with historical materialism, is a point already acknowledged by Madison in Federalist 10. Open Secrets, which tracks political contributions by sector, shows that both parties in the US continue to be parties of Capital, though they represent significantly different, and somewhat changing sectors of the economy.  The ethnoreligious dimension of party affiliation was first analyzed in depth by L. Benson. The Concept of Jacksonian Democracy. Princeton, 1961 and Samuel Hays. “The social analysis of American political history,” Political Science Quarterly 80.

[2] The idea of a series of distinct US party systems is due to Walter Dean Burnham, who first laid out this thesis in The American party systems: Stages of political development edited by William Nisbet Chambers and Burnham (1975). Later theorists have identified up to six separate stages in the development of the US party system, depending on whether the 1968 or 1980 general elections are viewed as “realigning” or simply as marking a minor adjustment in the fifth party system which emerged during the New Deal. L. Sandy Maisel; Mark D. Brewer (2011). Parties and Elections in America: The Electoral Process (6th ed.). Rowman & Littlefield


[3] The claim that social patterns in regions which were previously uninhabited –or were effectively cleared of their indigenous inhabitants– are driven significantly by which groups first established an effective and enduring settlement was first advanced by Wilber Zelinsky in The cultural geography of the United States, Englewood Cliffs, N.J., Prentice-Hall, 1973. It was applied specifically to understanding the impact of settlement from different regions of England by  David Hackett Fischer in  Albion’s Seed (Oxford University Press, 1989). Colin Woodward’s   American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America, Viking, 2011 brings the analysis up to date by considering the role impact of French, Spanish, and Mexican settlement.

[4] The formation of this synthesis is amply documented by Howe, Daniel Walker in The Political Culture of the American Whigs.  Chicago:  University of Chicago Press, 1979


[5] See Mike Davis’ Prisoners of the American Dream: Politics and Economy in the History of the U.S. Working Class (1986, 1999).


[6] For an interesting account of the degeneration of the Republican Party from a perspective sympathetic to the party’s left and center, consider  Geoffrey Kabaservice, Rule and Ruin: The Downfall of Moderation and the Destruction of the Republican Party, From Eisenhower to the Tea Party. Oxford University Press, 2012. For the classic statement of the Southern Strategy, see Kevin Phillips’ The Emerging Republican Majority, Arlington House 1969. It is worth noting that Phillips has become quite a critic of the direction the Republican Party ultimately took and is an important source for understanding the current situation in the US.

[7] F.A. Hayek. Fatal Conceit. London: Routledge: 1988.

[8] For a more detailed discussion of populist secularism see Mansueto, Anthony. The Ways of Wisdom. Eugene: Pickwick, 2016.

[9] The most important source on the social psychology of fascism remains Erich Fromm’s Escape from Freedom. New York: Holt, Reinhardt, Winston, 1941.

[10] On these latter points see Poulantzas, Nicos. Fascism and Dictatorship. London: Verso 1974 and Laclau, Ernesto. Politics and Ideology in Marxist Theory, London: Verso 1977.

[11] Heidegger, Martin. Beitrage sur Philosophie (“Contributions to Philosophy”).

Frankfurt-Main: Klosterman, 1937/1989.

[12] Millerman, Michael. “Heidegger Left and Right,” in The Fourth Political Theory,

[13] MacWilliams, Matthew. “Donald Trump is gaining authoritarian primary voters,” LSE US Centre. 2016.01.27.

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Engaging Those Left Behind

Among the most important hermeneutic keys to understanding the current political situation in the United States is the recent study released by Anne Case and Angus Deaton showing that, beginning in 1999 death rates among midlife “white” Americans have increased sharply, while rates for other groups have fallen. Death rates for Black Americans remain higher to be sure, though rates for Latinos are lower and the trend seems to be driven by developments among whites with a high school education or less.

This is the sociological condition which has made possible the transformation of the Republican presidential primary into a competition between fascistoid demagogues for the votes of a demographic segment whose defining characteristic can only be described as cultural despair.

Much of the interpretation of the findings has, unfortunately, focused on the suggestion by Case and Deaton that the trend is a result of suicide, alcohol poisoning, and abuse of “prescription opioids” following on the widespread availability of Oxycontin, though to be fair the authors themselves allow that the subjects of their study may well be facing an “authentic epidemic of pain.” Conservatives have read the findings as confirming Charles Murray’s argument in Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010 that “white” America has experienced a decline in moral virtue generally and its work ethic in particular in response to the temptations of an overly generous welfare state.

Such an interpretation is simply not credible. Drugs of all kinds are certainly even more accessible to higher income groups with better insurance coverage. And as commentators such as Paul Starr and Paul Krugman have pointed out there is no comparable trend in Western Europe which, despite recent changes, still has a much more generous welfare state.  Krugman points out that what distinguishes this group is the fact that less well educated white workers find themselves excluded, for the first time in generations from an American Dream which is still (sometimes) real for those with more education and which Black and Latino Americans never really believed was their own. Starr may be even closer to the mark in citing Case and Deaton’s own suggestion that the shift is tied specifically to the decline in defined benefit pensions after 1999,  which have left less well educated middle aged white Americans, for the first time in generations, facing an old age marked by poverty and inevitable decline rather than the “golden years” many imagined for themselves.

This analysis takes us part of the way to an answer –but only part of the way. First, as Krugman himself acknowledges, “universal health care, higher minimum wages, aid to education, and so on” while they may help, are not going to be enough. But this is not just because, as Deaton argues,  less educated white Americans have  “lost the narrative of their lives” that “their economic setbacks have hit hard because they expected better.”  The problem is that that narrative itself, and the structures which emerged to sustain it, were themselves flawed from the very beginning.

Krugman gets part of the way –but only part of the way– towards recognizing this when he concludes his analysis by describing the crisis of less educated white Americans as a case of “existential despair.”  Existential suffering is universal suffering, written into our underlying human condition: that fact that being finite we are aware of the infinite and desire without limit, that being contingent we can at least conceive of the power of Being as such and seek this power absolutely –both aims which exceed our natural human capacities.  Civilizational ideals interpret and respond to this reality; social structures represent an attempt to realize those ideals, however imperfectly.

Our hegemonic civilizational ideal –what I have called technocratic secularism– which seeks to transcend finitude by means of scientific, technological, and economic progress is dead. It operates by turning human beings into batteries whether through mechanisms of state planning or, more generally, market pressures and will end, if it lasts long enough, by rendering all human labor redundant. Less educated white Americans have been particularly affected by this crisis because they have recently been retired as batteries and moved into the column of surplus population, joining the less educated Black and Latino Americans they (at least sometimes seem to) despise. But it is a destiny we all face if we continue down our current path.

But this is only part of the story. Those following this debate may have noticed, as Paul Krugman did, that despite lower levels of education and income, Latinos –and Latin Americans generally– have lower suicide death rates and report higher well being than most other groups. What every one has seemed to forget is that this is exactly what anyone with a basic education in social theory should expect. Latin Americans are Catholic. And this true at the deeper cultural level even when they have individually embraced evangelical Protestantism.  They are less likely to buy into the dominant technocratic secular ideal than other groups and even if they do their embrace of it is modified and softened by their Catholic heritage, which challenges them to find meaning in the wisdom which flows from charity and in a community which pursues this ideal. This is why Catholics had lower suicide rates when Durkheim first studied the phenomenon at the end of the nineteenth century. This why Latino immigrants have lower death rates today.

Not all less educated “white” Americans, to be sure, fully embrace the technocratic secular ideal. But even those who are nominally Catholic are part of an historically  Protestant society which, as Weber pointed out nearly a century ago, means that they look for evidence of their spiritual state (or more broadly of their worth as human beings) not, as some incorrect readings of The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism claim, in their worldly success, but in their usefulness to society. This is why, as Weber argued, Protestantism has been a precursor to technocratic secularism generally and capitalism in particular. And it is precisely their “usefulness to society” which less educated “white” Americans are finding questioned. I suspect that a deeper look at the problem would find that the trends in suicide and death rates are worst in those regions which, controlling for economic vitality, have the strongest Protestant culture: e.g. Greater Appalachia.

This brings us much closer to a correct interpretation of Case and Deaton’s challenging study –and much closer to an understanding of what must be done if we are both to counter the fascistoid trend which is so strong among less educated white Americans and, more broadly to heal not just this particular demographic segment (it cannot be called a community) and our society as a whole.

First, we must understand the limitations of the technocratic ideal and reject it. This does not mean rejecting science or technology or the belief that they can make our lives better –even radically better in ways which ultimately alters, in some ways, the “existential equation.” But it does mean recognizing that what human beings seek is not infinite consumption but unbounded creativity. We need a science and a technology which help us stop destroying our planet and which focus less on making more for us and more on helping us realize our creative potential. This, in turn, requires a break with Capital for which technological progress is simply a way of driving the value of labor power down to zero, in favor of a structure in which new technologies free human labor from routine drudgery and for creativity.

We don’t know how to get there yet. Historic socialism was too quickly hegemonized by the technocratic ideal and became simply an alternative way of transforming human beings into batteries. But a restored commons, which takes advantage of rising levels of productivity to secure the conditions of survival and development, for everyone on the planet, regardless of their “usefulness” –and ultimately regardless of their labor– is a start. The reason why “universal health care, higher minimum wages, aid to education, and so on” are not enough is that they have not been proposed or implemented so much with the intention of reducing and eventually eliminating market pressures, but rather with simply providing slightly better conditions for people struggling to maintain or increase their usefulness to Capital. Its better than nothing, but it doesn’t address the underlying malaise. This is why less educated “white” Americans don’t believe that even very serious social liberals like Krugman really speak to them. We need to create the conditions for a generation or two of the vast segments of our population “white,” Black, and Latino and “other,” whose labor has been rendered redundant, to “just chill” while they figure out what they want to do next. We need to let them,  and not the technogentry whose work is still (sometimes) interesting to them, and Capital, which that work serves, be the principal beneficiaries of technological change.

To put the matter baldly, in the absence of a clear understanding of what this means structurally in the long run the Left needs to offer people cash up front, lots of it, over very long periods of time, without any strings attached. This and this alone will definitively defeat the fascistoid right.

The aim, of course, is not for people to “just chill” indefinitely. But we need to begin by believing that this isn’t really a danger, that contrary to the technocratic secular (and Protestant) narratives which regard human beings as fundamentally selfish, people actually long for unbounded generativity. And so our commons must also become a sanctuary in which human generativity is inspired and cultivated and nurtured. We need to learn from the great majority of humanity’s spiritual traditions which regard human beings as not just potentially useful instruments for an alien Supreme Agency, divine or human, but as potentially or actually wise and enlightened, just and compassionate participants in the ripening of Being. The enduring power of the Catholic tradition has, in this regard, been highlighted by the debate around Case and Deaton, as by Pope Francis’ halting but very real (re)turn of the Church to its historic option not just for the poor but against the instrumentalization of humanity and of the earth, capitalist and otherwise. But other traditions –Judaism and Islam, Buddhism and Hinduism, primal or aboriginal traditions and humanistic secularisms also have much to offer the debate. Given reasonable assurance within the technological and means of their society that their basic needs will be met and presented with inspiring visions of the countless ways of ripening Being, human beings will rise to the challenge and strive for unbounded creativity.

Finitude and contingency will always be our defining horizon. It is the knowledge (and experience) of death which challenges us to seek the power of Being as such, and never to rest content with anything else. But the future, which for both our planet itself, as an ecosystem and biome, and for the vast majority those who dwell here, is currently a valley of troubles, can in fact be a gate of hope. The decision is ours. So be it.


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Against the New Atheism

One of the most remarkable features of the current conjuncture, especially in the United States, is the rise of the New Atheism as a potent ideological force, especially among the Millennial Generation. This has been accompanied by a broader growth in the population as a whole of the number of people claiming no religious affiliation. Indeed, where a decade ago social theory was dominated by a discourse around the “return of religion,” today, at least in the United States, it would be more appropriate to speak of a “return,” or perhaps, more precisely, an advent of the secular.

The situation in Europe is, to be sure, rather different. Always more secular than the United States, at least in terms of its own self-understanding and in terms of such empirical measures as theism and participation in religious activities, the European “return of religion” took the form of –and persists in– the presence of a  (largely Islamic) Other. In the United States, on the other hand, there was not so much a “return of religion” as a recognition of just how deeply religious the country really is. What remained, by 1980, of the left of the 1960s, turned out to be an overwhelmingly religious left rooted in Jewish and Christian communities with a long history in the country, not as significant perhaps as its counterpart in Latin America, but a real presence nonetheless. It is, indeed, to this religious  left which our President at least  marginally belongs. Beyond this religious left there was a broader New Age “seeker” community and an even broader periphery which considers itself “spiritual but not religious.”  And our Religious Right, which has formed an integral part of Republican governing coalitions since 1980, is not only indigenous but downright nativist in its orientation.

None of these socioreligious trends have disappeared, but they have both receded and been joined by a secularism of a sort even most convinced atheists of earlier generation believed had been left behind long ago: one uncritically adulating towards science and technology and convinced that religious convictions and sentiments of any kind are not merely wrong but a sign of utter and complete stupidity. It is an atheism which neither Sartre nor the earlier Derrida would have recognized as anything but a caricature of the nineteenth century high modern secularisms of which they themselves, their atheism notwithstanding, were leading critics.

What has happened? Why? What is the broader spiritual and civilizational significance of these developments?  We need to begin by considering just what the religious left of the postwar period, and especially the period from the 1960s through the 1980s, both globally and in the United States, actually was. We will then turn to analyzing the reasons for its defeat (again both globally and in the US) and for the rise of the New Atheism. Finally, we will argue that this development is fully as dangerous as the rise of the religious right, and leaves humanity disarmed in the face of triumphant Capital and Empire, and argue for a strategy for regaining the ground the religious left has lost over the course of the last generation.

The term “religious left” is ambiguous by nature. It is notoriously difficult to define religion in the first place. And just what constitutes the “left” is itself also increasingly contested. In the broadest sense the religious left consists of those who, while identifying with one of humanity’s historic or emerging spiritual traditions, support the historic ideals of the political left: rational autonomy, democratic and national self-determination and, when the term is used in its fullest sense, communism understood in the true sense of transcending the commodification of labor. But I would like to suggest that the religious left has a more specific sense and a more specific significance that, once understood, explains both the emergence and the reactionary political valence of the New Atheism.

Humanistic secularism, you see, is itself a spiritual ideal. It aims at transcending contingency, and thus achieving a kind of divinity, by creating a political subject: the rationally autonomous individual, the people as demos or ethnos, or the proletariat, which can make humanity the master of its own destiny. The great story of the last century was the definitive collapse of this ideal. The political subjects we created, it turned out, far from making us gods, built Dachau and the Gulag –or, in their more benign, liberal form, proved themselves impotent against Capital and Empire. Existentialism and Deconstruction were above all a recognition that humanistic secularism was over.

The religious left which emerged after the Second World War was, fundamentally, an attempt to defend the humanistic ideals of rational autonomy, democratic self-determination, and communism (understood as transcending the commodification of labor power) by arguing that they could, in fact, be realized, but only in the context of a broader project which integrated spiritual with political disciplines. This religious left had, in turn, two peripheries: the purely spiritual New Age which abandoned the political entirely for purely spiritual strategies of humanistic self-realization, and an intensely self-critical humanistic secular remnant from atheistic existentialists such as Sartre (to whom, of course, we owe the formulation that “humanity is the desire to be God”), through critical theorists such as Fromm and Zizek, up to “postmodern” and “postpostmodern” thinkers such as the late Derrida and Agamben, who recognize the metaphysical drive to be God, either directly or indirectly, and understand that the humanistic ideal finds its natural home in a religious context (thus the energy spent on the exegesis of diverse religious texts) while remaining in a state of nonbelief, practicing a kind of atheology which has nothing to do with the New Atheism.

Relatively few, to be sure, belonged to the self-conscious ideological core of the religious left, whether socialist, democratic, or merely liberal. But those who did created a space in which the “big questions” continued to get asked –if not always credibly answered. This is reflected in the fact that at most universities in the Anglo-American world, where philosophical faculties were dominated by analytic “anti-philosophy” which rejected as meaningless most questions of meaning and value, divinity schools and religious studies departments have long been the only place one can actually engage big picture questions. And for the past generation we have lead the resistance to neoliberalism, racism and imperialism, sexism –and even homophobia. We forget too easily that even the struggle for gay marriage, the last stages of which have been fought out against conservative religious leaders, was originally a struggle within churches for religious recognition of same-sex unions.

What, then, led to the defeat of the religious left, which as late as 1978 seemed to be ready to open a new chapter in human history? The simple answer is that Capital recognized us as a serious adversary and took the steps necessary to disarm us. Already in the 1970s elements on the US Right were organizing to challenge the growing influence of the left in US churches, both Catholic and liberal Protestant.  The election of John Paul II, whether it was “assisted” by the intervention of US intelligence agencies or the result of more subtle channels of influence, effectively altered the geopolitical strategy of the Vatican, which shifted from a loose alliance with the Kremlin and the national liberation movements against global Capital, to an alliance with global Capital and a desperate attempt to shore up specifically European aristocratic interests by means of a mysogynist pronatalist stance on questions of sexual morality. Liberal Protestant Churches, which were the churches of the ruling class, were simply defunded. This meant in practice that they were forced to cater more and more to church-going, dues-paying members and be less and less responsive to the broader community they were called to serve. While many have remained faithful  to the progressive political stands they began taking in the 1960s, they do so with much reduced numbers and on much reduced budgets.  Where my generation of leaders of the religious left might reasonably have expected, from the vantage point of 1978, to be in a position to go toe to toe with global Capital by the time we reached 50, instead we found ourselves just barely hanging on.

That said, we were not utterly annihilated. It took Woytila and Ratzinger a long time to completely hegemonize the Catholic hierarchy and consecrated religious, especially women religious, while dwindling in numbers and increasingly strapped for cash, retained and retain significant autonomy. Both Catholic and historically Protestant liberal arts colleges continued to train cohorts of students who, while not exactly a compact cadre of religious left leaders, were significantly influenced by the questions raised for them by their professors, who remained, for the most part, either religious or self-critically secular humanists. Congregation based community organizations, while they never reached their full potential, remained a significant political force and eventually produced a US President. There remained, in other words, at least a decade ago, a significant “remnant” of individuals, networks, and even institutions asking significant questions about global Capital from the vantage point of broad spiritual commitments, which if not as fully elaborated and well grounded intellectually as they needed to be, were more consistent than and lacked the “taint” of “atheistic communism.”

Thus the need for the New Atheism. Thus the specific way in which the Great Recession, itself a fully economic reality, was mobilized by Capital politically and ideologically. By the New Atheism we mean the well defined trend represented by Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, David Dennet, Christopher Hitchens and others who argue that modern science has rendered religious belief of any kind utterly and completely unreasonable. The members of this trend insist on identifying religious belief with either an ahistorical caricature of premodern, prescientific, precritical religious belief or, more often, with contemporary fundamentalisms. Neither the long high tradition of philosophically informed religious belief and practice nor more recent critical reinterpretations of that tradition in dialogue with both modern science and the critical humanistic (hermeneutic) disciplines is taken seriously, but simply dismissed out of hand as intellectual dishonesty.

As best we can tell the New Atheism derives much of its financial support from the biotechnology sector. This is not surprising given that this sector has an obvious and entirely reasonable interest in countering fundamentalist mischief directed against the teaching of evolution and important research and development which has sometimes involved fetal stem cells. The affinity, however, is rather broader than this. Biology generally is governed by a fundamental theory, the Neo-Darwinist synthesis, which regards evolutionary innovation as fundamentally random and spontaneous and which emphasizes the “editorial” role of natural selection in defining a pathway towards the development of more complex, or at least more adaptive forms of organization. This is, at base, the same fundamental theory which governs neoliberal economics, as Frederick Hayek’s information theoretical/evolutionary restatement of that theory in Fatal Conceit makes clear. Whatever explicit political positions its advocates may take, the New Atheism does the ideological work of Capital.

How does the New Atheism work? What it does, in effect, is to target essentially all discourse around fundamental questions of meaning and value, whether spiritual or secular, which does not embrace a very narrow interpretation of the canons and conclusions of empirical science. These cannons and conclusions it understands as not merely formally describing how the world works, but as explaining why the world is as it is, to the extent that such an explanation is possible or meaningful at all. This has the effect of rendering superfluous not just theology but also philosophy and the whole of the humanities and the humanistic social sciences. It is no accident the Four Horsemen of the New Atheism (as Harris, Dawkins, Jenkins, and Hitchens are often called) has been followed by the fifth and six Horsemen of the “accountability movement” which seeks to assess the performance and utility of universities and their component faculties using quantitative metrics against which the humanities and humanistic social sciences and the wisdoms will never look good, and of explicit attempts to defund these disciplines, at least at public institutions.

What this does, in effect, is to leave what we have called technocratic secularism, the attempt to transcend finitude by means of scientific, technological, and economic progress, as the only ideological player left on the field. This is, of course, exactly what Capital, which is the agent of that ideal and which is legitimated by it, wants. It is, in fact, an attempt to end history once and for all, to create Nietzsche’s “last man.”

How must we respond? Exposing and analyzing the dynamic is an important first step. But we need to mount a comprehensive response to the New Atheism which addresses its epistemological, cosmological, metaphysical and ethical claims. We need to be clear that there is more to truth than the facts. We need to embrace the authentic spirit of science which both celebrates the very real achievements of science in unlocking the secrets of nature and acknowledges the deep seated contractions between its fundamental theories (relativity, quantum mechanics, thermodynamics, and evolution by means of random variation and natural selection). We need to insist on the distinction between formal description or explaining how, which is what science has become, and explaining why, which is the realm of philosophy and the higher wisdoms. The two enterprises require different methods. And in both cases empirical investigation is only one part of the process. And we need to expose the technocratic ideal of transcending finitude by means of scientific, technological and economic progress as the empty lie that it is. Humanity is the desire not for infinitely More, but for Being as such and it is only in that Being that our hearts and minds, which otherwise wander forever restless, find joy and peace.

On the practical front, furthermore, we must actively resist an accountability movement by the standards of which the humanities and humanistic social sciences and the wisdoms are doomed. We must defend the position of the humanistic and sapiential faculties in public universities as constitutive of the full participation of the working classes in the human vocation and the human civilizational project.

But this is not enough. For too long the humanities, the humanistic social sciences, and the wisdoms have “hidden out in the open” by speaking in a twilight discourse which only a handful of specialists understood, engaging questions of meaning and value indirectly by means of commentaries on commentaries on commentaries, hoping that our sponsors would not understand the subversive nature of our work and thus defund us. We have all been secret Averroists who, in our heart of hearts, believed that a little philosophy was a bad thing and that there was no way we could be open about the true nature of our work and survive. This was true of the secular left, which concealed the metaphysical aims of communism (“the resolution of the conflict between existence and essence”) so well that even most committed communists forgot them. It was true of the religious left, which reserved engagement with historical criticism and hermeneutics as well as with the entire high theological tradition (not to mention more recent, more radical innovations) for those destined for the clergy. And even then we required only the briefest of engagements. But now we are being defunded for a far less noble reason. No one understands what we do or why it is important. It is not entirely clear that even those within our own movement engaged in more practical work will or would come to our defense. We have lost not only the laos, but also, in effect our cadre and cleros.

Those working in the trenches, on the other hand, in interfaith/institutionally based organizing or in any of the other  forms of mass political activity which became, increasingly, works of the religious left, scrupulously avoided engagement with theory or “ideology,” in the belief that fundamental structural or authentically revolutionary change was so far off that it was not worth risking the controversy such an engagement would likely involve. As a result they ceded the ideological terrain to those who did engage theory. And now we have a new generation anxious to act on the serious global challenges facing humanity who understand nothing of either humanity’s great spiritual traditions or of the great humanistic secularisms of the past 250 years, and instead embrace a scientistic solutionism which cedes the field in advance to Capital and Empire.

The humanities, humanistic social sciences, and the wisdoms, secular and spiritual, must return to an active, open, and publicly effective engagement with fundamental questions of meaning and value. This will, to be sure, mean fighting for our livings –and quite possibly our lives– with sponsors who thought they had broken us. Those engaged in pastoral and organizing work must understand that any authentic solution to the challenges of the present period presupposes an open-ended and pluralistic engagement with the question of what it means to be human. Only such an engagement will create the ideological conditions to challenge Capital, Empire, and the Saeculum of which they are the instruments. And this means taking theory and “ideology” seriously –and challenging the people, the laos, to do so as well.

We stand at a crossroads. Our ecosystem is already past the tipping point and ecologically generated mass dislocations and upheavals are all but inevitable. They have, in fact, already begun. Technological progress increasingly renders all routine human labor rendundant. Will we respond to these challenges in a way that opens up the possibility of an authentically human future? Or will we allow humanity to be displaced by something able to accumulate more efficiently, without asking what it all means? The choice, at least for now, is still ours.

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The real meaning of jihadism …

One of the most striking symptoms of our civilization’s current inability to understand itself –and to understand the broader humanity of which it is an expression– is the shock and dismay expressed every time another teen or twenty-something runs off from a college town in Mississippi or a working class housing estate in East London  to join the terrorist cult that blasphemously calls itself a Caliphate and the “Islamic State in Syria and the Levant”, and which is giving the “bad boys” of the last century a run for their money in the intensity, if not the scale, of their terror. How could young people with such a bright future and such an impressive moral profile do something so stupid and so morally reprehensible?

There is, to be sure, some good analysis out there of the specific challenges faced by young Muslims especially in Europe but also in the US. And anyone concerned with this issue would be right, as a number of recent articles have suggested, to acquaint themselves with the emerging “jihadist girl power” subculture. There is even, as with nearly everything else today, a game, called Alfa-Arkiv, built around the subculture, which in turn is the sequel to a five year long alternate reality game centered around the Junko Junsui.

My concern here, however, is with the much broader claim made by both many Islamists and by self-critical advocates of “Western” humanistic secularism, that the option of so many young people for Islamism represents a global failure of the Western ideal of freedom and a sign that our civilization is being eclipsed by Islam. This line of thought is exemplified above all by Michel Houellebecq’s novel Soumission, which recounts an electoral takeover of a culturally exhausted France in the near future –2022 by a nonviolent, but ultimately quite radical Islamist party. The argument, broadly speaking, runs something like this: Humanistic secularism, having failed to deliver on its promise of rational autonomy and the creation of a political subject which can make humanity the master of its own destiny, is exhausted, and humanity is abandoning it for the still vigorous promise of divine justice offered by Islam.

Those familiar with my work will know that I believe that the first part of this thesis is at least partially true. The theosis promised by humanistic secularism through the creation of a political subject which makes humanity the master of its own destiny is impossible. Neither the rationally autonomous individual, nor the democratic state, nor the “people” as ethnos or nation, nor the Communist Party, can become the “unique subject-object” of the cosmohistorical evolutionary process and thus, in effect, divine. Not only for the individual, as Lukacs recognized, but for the collective, contingency is inescapable.

This does not, however, mean that the humanistic secular ideal is entirely exhausted, nor that Islamism represents a fundamental alternative to which the best and brightest of our young people are suddenly flocking, the horrific crimes of the so-called Caliphate notwithstanding.  On the contrary, I would like to argue, ISIL is an expression of the humanistic secular ideal, and specifically of its populist variant. The attraction of ISIL is an expression of the enduring vitality but also the internal contradictions of this ideal. Addressing both the specific challenge of promising young people joining a murderous cult and the broader civilizational crisis of which this is a symptom requires that we address those contradictions specifically.

Our first step in demonstrating this claim is to point out that humanistic secularism is not and never has been the dominant ideal in our civilization. It is, rather, a critical subcurrent, an altermodernity, not only in its revolutionary nationalist/populist and socialist forms, but also in its more moderate liberal and democratic expressions. Our civilization is not and never has been ordered to the cultivation of rational autonomy or the collective self determination of the people as demos or ethnos or of the working classes. It is ordered to an attempt to transcend finitude and thus achieve a kind of divinity by means of scientific, technological, and economic progress. While this progress has sometimes been carried out under the auspices of a nationalistic or socialist state which made the false promise that it would, in the end, contribute to the higher ideal of making humanity the master of its own destiny, it is now carried out largely by global Capital which  has become an increasingly autonomous force, independent not only of states but of historic ruling class networks. The hegemonic ideal of our civilization is not humanistic but rather technocratic secularism.

It is, furthermore, this ideal which is spent. Climate change coupled with a failure to develop new sustainable energy sources mean that rather than technological utopia our future seems instead to portend ecological collapse. New technologies are making human labor, even skilled human labor, increasingly redundant while ever more rigorous market discipline is transforming essentially all human beings, even the highly privileged, into batteries. While it might be argued that our current direction is more nearly defined by Capital than by the technocratic ideal it serves, and that a different economic structure might channel investment into precisely the sustainable energy sources that we need, and leverage the power of automation to liberate humanity once and for all from drudgery, this proposal itself represents a break with the technocratic ideal, a decision to subject technological progress and economic accumulation to specifically human ends, and thus an option for humanism. This is, fundamentally, what historic socialism was about. And it ended either in the triumph of the technocratic means over the humanistic end or in a slower pace of growth, especially at the level of the third industrial revolution and beyond, that rendered the socialist countries vulnerable to eventual defeat by global Capital.

There has, to be sure, been a resurgence of support for technocratic secularism in the form of transhumanism and the New Atheism, a phenomenon we will address in our next article. But very few people any longer believe that science and technology will makes us into gods. The divinity promised by technocratic secularism is not an authentic theosis which transforms us into the power of Being as such, but rather the “bad infinity” which extends everywhere and forever the suffering of emptiness craving a self-subsistence and self-determination it cannot have.

Islamism –not Islam, but Islamism– is a variant of humanistic secularism. Specifically, it is a form of populism which suggests that the Muslim ummah, with or without a reconstituted Caliphate, is in fact the collective subject which humanity has sought, which will redeem it from the instrumentalizations of Industry, Capital, and Empire. That the subject, in this case, is defined in religious rather than specifically ethnic or national terms does not make the ideology any less secular. It is a political subject acting through worldly means –not a restoration of the historic Islamic civilization which integrated a commitment to the creation of a just society with a complex spirituality which proposed a path by which human beings could develop in such a way that they are capable of such justice. This is true of all Islamisms to some extent, though those of Sufi or Shia provenance conserve far more of the authentic spiritual heritage of Islam than the Salafism of ISIL, al-Qaeda, or the Taliban, which are founded explicitly on the rejection of Islam’s Sufi and Shia spiritual heritage.

So what are these intelligent, morally serious young people actually doing when they run off to join ISIL? First, a point of clarification is required. They are not running off in order to join a murderous terrorist cult. That, at least, is not what they understand themselves to be doing. They have been lied to so often by their governments and by corporations and even by the leaders of their own communities and religious institutions that they do not believe what they see and hear about the “Islamic State.”  They don’t understand that even those who lie most of the time sometimes tell the truth.

So what are these young people doing? Exactly what we want our best and the brightest to do: choosing a life of meaning and purpose, of seeking wisdom, doing justice, and ripening Being. It is just that the opportunities to actually live such a life, especially in a concentrated, intensive, consecrated way, are few and far between.

Human beings have many defining needs and desires, many latent potentials which set us apart from other forms of being, but all, from the lowest to the highest, can be encompassed in one single drive. As Sartre said, humanity is the desire to be God. Being finite we are aware of the infinite. Being contingent and dependent on other beings for our survival, we seek to be Necessary, having the power of Being in ourselves. We are also intensely aware of the fact that our desire to be God transcends our natural capacities and is possible, if at all, only by becoming something other than ourselves: i.e. only by dying.

Now not every one thinks this, of course. And there are other ways of articulating the truth behind the formula I have sketched out above. But everything everyone does is a way of seeking Being. And the more intellectually cultivated, morally serious, and spiritually developed we are the more explicit our quest for Being. The best among us seek to live lives of meaning and purpose, seeking wisdom, doing justice, and ripening Being.

Now it is part of the human predicament that we will never find a fully satisfying or adequate way of doing this. If we did we would be not the desire to be God, but God Herself. But each civilization makes it both possible and difficult to lead a meaningful way of life in historically specific ways.  I am not sure that we live in a uniquely difficult time, but it is difficult enough that even the very best, perhaps especially the very best and especially when they are very young, can make very bad decisions.

There are, to be sure, some of the best and the brightest who still believe in the technocratic secular ideal and who become scientists and engineers and entrepreneurs “like they are supposed to.” But precisely to the extent that they actually believe in this ideal they will, ultimately, push it to its logical, godbuilding conclusion. It is the best and the brightest of our scientists and engineers and entrepreneurs that, precisely because they understand that humanity is the desire to be God, who are most likely to usher in the genetically modified and/or information-theoretically uploaded transhumanist/cyberpunk dystopia in which the rest of us are obsolete and which, therefore, we fear. It is not in spite of but rather because of the visionary greatness of its founders that Google, its slogan notwithstanding, is gradually becoming “evil.”

The rest opt for one or another of the available humanistic alternatives: liberalism or democracy or populism or socialism, enriched by an engagement with older spiritual traditions or not, which they study at universities to which access continues to rapidly increase but the quality and rigor of which continues to decline ever more rapidly.

The narrative of both revolutionary politics, whether of the Left or the Right, since the eighteenth century and of the Youth Culture since the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s, is fundamentally the story of people who bought the promises of the one variant of the Saeculum only to discover that they were empty lies and then turned towards another secular ideology in its place. The older revolutionary politics organized the working classes and the peasantry to leverage structural changes which would at once improve their own lives and allow revolutionary elites to live the humanistic variant of the secular ideal, creating political subjects which could make them into the “unique subject-objects” of the cosmohistorical evolutionary process. The newer Islamist politics recognizes the failure of historic socialism but proposes instead that Islam can redeem humanity from the instrumentalizations of Industry, Capital, and Empire and return us to ourselves.

The youth culture, which extends from the “Sixties” through the emerging jihadist girl power subculture, is a specific variant of this configuration. Since the end of the second world war wave after wave of students from the working class and petty bourgeoisie have been assured that obtaining a university education would ensure them a good life, something the best and the brightest read to include a life of meaning and purpose. Instead they have been delivered, at best, a more privileged proletarianization, and at worse mass unemployment. The Sixties represented a rejection of this fate, either by dropping out, something which turned out not to be economically viable for most, or by yet another attempt at global revolution.

As a late baby boomer, and more precisely a member of Generation Jones (the cohort born between about 1957 and 1964), I came of age at the tail end of this period. It was already apparent in the 1970s that the movement politics of the older members of our generation was not going to unleash a revolution. It also, however, seemed in the 1970s that global consumer capitalism was doomed both for ecological reasons and because national liberation movements were chalking up victory after victory: Angola, Mozambique, and Guinea Bissau, Ethiopia, Iran, and Nicaragua … The US economy seemed permanently stalled and beyond help. Many of us settled into the long hard work of building community organizations and labor unions. A few of us situated that work in the context of broader, more revolutionary commitments, struggling to rebuild a communist movement which had clearly gone badly astray, often in dialogue with older spiritual traditions.

Over the course of the 1980s, as the Soviet Union collapsed and the national liberation movements retreated in the face of Global Capital, and as information technology both gave capitalist economies a real value added boost and provided the technology necessary for a truly integrated global capital market, our now aged “new left” collapsed.

It was just precisely this vacated niche that radical Islamism was able to capture. Islamism of various kinds, to be sure, had been around for some time. The Wahabi movement began in the eighteenth century as a response to the crisis of Islamic civilization in the face of emerging capitalism and European imperialism, arguing that Islam had failed because it had compromised too much with the civilizations it encountered. This became, ironically, the ideology of the Saudi state created in alliance with British and later American interests for which it became an increasingly powerful junior partner in the exercise of global Empire. Other Islamisms shared much with both European traditionalism of the sort advocated by Julian  Evola and Rene Guenon, which saw secular civilization as corrupt and in decline, and with the national liberation ideologies of Franz Fanon.

As humanistic secular ideologies and especially communism retreated, compromised by their concessions to technocracy and bureaucracy and by the impossibility of creating a political subject which makes humanity the master of its own destiny while at the same time not just safeguarding but actually advancing individual rational autonomy, Islamism moved into the niche.  It is not surprising that many of the best and brightest of the Millennial generation, recognizing that the promises of the Saeculum were hollow and wanting to devote themselves to a life of meaning and of the struggle for justice, would find their way into the Islamist camp. And it is not surprising that some would find it impossible to believe that the most extreme groups, such as ISIL, were really as bad as the secular capitalist media claim them to be, just as many from my generation refused to believe the worst about Mao and the Gang of Four (I still struggle with this) and many in my father’s generation (outside the US) and my grandfather’s generation even here found it difficult to believe that Stalin, who helped save Europe from Hitler,  also gave old Adolf a run for his money in the evil villain sweepstakes.

This does not, however, mean that it is inevitable that the best and the brightest run off to join terrorist cults like ISIL. There is an alternative, but it requires, first of all, a more radical self-criticism of humanistic secularism than has yet been undertaken and a renewal of three practices which have fallen very much into crisis: the practice of liberal education, the practice of institutional organizing, and the practice of authentic spiritual discipline.

This radical self-criticism of humanistic secularism is, fundamentally, what the broad religious left which emerged in the postwar period and which peaked in the 1970s and 1980s was groping towards. We must at once affirm our desire to be God and its manifestation in secular struggles for rational autonomy and democratic self-determination –including the self-determination of the working class, which Marx was quite right to recognize as the  definitive expression of humanity in its creative species being– and recognize that this desire is quite impossible apart from becoming something other than we are, and thus dying. We will address this question more fully in a forthcoming article, but the religious left is defined by a simultaneous commitment to the humanistic secular ideals of not just justice but also rational autonomy and self-determination (that is what makes it different from traditional messianisms or from some manifestations of the religious right which also have a concern for justice) and an argument that these aims can be realized only in a broader spiritual context, whether theistic (as argued by most Jewish, Christian, Muslim, and Hindu advocates of the trend) or not (as argued by many Buddhists). Specifically, the construction of a political subject can contribute to the quest for rational autonomy and collective self-determination. But only spiritual discipline can help us grow towards the God we want to be.

Most historic expressions of the religious left have fallen short of this ideal. Those which criticized humanistic secularism from the vantage point of an historic spiritual tradition, such as the Integral Humanism of Jacques Maritain, failed to take seriously enough the humanistic, and specifically communist, critique of Capital. Those which approached the problem from a secular perspective, such as much critical theory and the now vigorous “atheistic theology” of thinkers as diverse as Zizek, Agamben, and the late Derrida recognized the impossibility of the deification which Marx sought in communism, but opted for what might be called a tragic sense of life rather than real spiritual engagement. And the theology of liberation, which was rigorous in both its spiritual and political commitments, avoided, for the most part, engaging the difficult philosophical and theological questions posed by the encounter between socialism and humanity’s historic spiritual traditions.

My own work attempts to overcome these limitations. Specifically, I argue in my forthcoming work The Ways of Wisdom for both an active embrace of the humanistic secular recognition that humanity is the desire to be God and a clear recognition that the realization of this aim transcends any political means, though the political aspirations to which it gives rise, for rational autonomy and collective self-determination, are necessary and just. I also argue for a spirituality which learns not only from humanism but from all of humanity’s spiritual traditions and which integrates an active commitment to the struggle for justice with a recognition that it is precisely our failures along that path which teach us the deepest spiritual truth: that Being is neither substance nor subject, but rather relational, transformative generativity. It is only when we recognize this truth that we become truly capable of freedom, democracy, and communism.

All of which brings us back to what we need to do in order to help the best and brightest of our young people find a more constructive expression of the desire for a life of meaning and devotion than running off to join ISIL. In order to realize their potential to serve and to lead, the best and the brightest need three things. First, they need to be able to take and defend independent positions regarding questions of meaning and value, politics and strategy, in the context of a full mastery of humanity’s ongoing, millennia long deliberation regarding these questions. These are the capacities historically cultivated by liberal education. But while more people than ever have access to what claims to be a liberal education, in reality they get nowhere near enough to make an informed judgment regarding why humanity’s great spiritual and revolutionary movements of the past, whether we are talking about Islam or communism, ran up against insuperable limits. They are thus unprepared to help humanity take the next steps. What is more important, they lack the longue durée perspective which helps them understand that while they can and will make a difference, their aim (which is ultimately theosis even if they are atheists) is realized only in eternity and that visible progress takes lifetimes and centuries and significant progress millennia. We need leaders for whom Chou-en lai, not Mao Zedong, is the ideal. The former, when asked what he thought about the significance of the French revolution, remarked that it was still far too early, two centuries later, to tell.

Second, the best and the brightest need to be trained organizers. They need to understand that power is the ability to get things done, that this requires people, a goal, and a plan. The larger the number and the more cultivated the people, the higher the goal and the more sophisticated the plan the more power can be built over the very longue durée, which is all that matters. They must learn to do individual relational meetings to identify potential leaders, map out their interests and relationships and assess their leadership potential. They must know how to appeal to the existing interests and mobilize the existing networks of the leaders they identify while helping those leaders grow and develop across all dimensions. And they must understand how to deploy thee leaders to reorder existing institutions to higher ends and to create new institutions which carry further humanity’s fundamentally theotic project.

Finally, they must themselves be extraordinary people not just intellectually and in terms of their political skills, but spiritually, in terms of what they want and who they are. They must understand that while all aims have value because all participate in Being, they will never rest content except in the one End which is the aim and purpose of all things.  And they  must order their affections accordingly. They must overcome the illusion that they or anyone else or anything else (including God) exists in itself and recognize that God or Being is neither substance nor subject but rather pure, relational, transformative generativity. And they must therefore seek this generativity rather than any form of self-subsistence or self-determination. It is only then that we are authentically Being and authentically self-determining.  And they must integrate both a connatural knowledge of these truths and a right ordering of their affections with the ability to live with joy in the world of finitude and contingency in which we are all, for better or worse, trapped.

This is the real challenge presented to us by the stories of young people stealing off to Syria to join a murderous cult. Our aim should not be deradicalization but rather to capture this revolutionary and mystical aspiration, itself pregnant with transformative potential for humanity, but also quite dangerous if not cultivated in the right ways and to nurture it and channel it into an so that it becomes an authentic force for seeking wisdom, doing justice, and ripening Being.

Our existing academic, political, and religious institutions have, unfortunately, largely abandoned this work. We will have to create new ones. That is what Seeking Wisdom is all about.

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Class, Mana, and Power: Organized Money

This is the first installment of a series exploring the conditions under which power is built and exercised over both the short and longue duree. Subsequent installments will look at the role of organized people and organized mana or what is often called cultural capital. I invite your comments as I work towards a coherent theory of power which can support a strategy adequate to the tasks of confronting Capital and Empire in this period of civilizational crisis. 


There is no question of social theory or political theology more important, from an explanatory,  normative, and a strategic perspective, than that of the hierarchy and stratification. From an explanatory and strategic perspective, understanding the unequal distribution of factors contributing to power is fundamental to contesting that distribution. On the other hand, from a normative perspective, any claim regarding the transcendental end to which human beings are ordered implies at least an implicit judgment regarding the extent to which individuals have realized those ends, and thus some concept of hierarchy.

Historically, even among social theorists respectful towards religion and theologians who draw on the social sciences these two ways of engaging hierarchy have been treated as fundamentally separate and incommensurable. While theology might make judgments about the justice or injustice of various forms of inequality, it was left to a purely secular theory to analyze and explain them.  And while sociologists might analyze the ways in which status systems in particular, as opposed to class structures, reflect and institutionalize the beliefs and values of a society, it was left to theology or philosophy to pass judgment on what is actually important.

Central to our project of a restored theoria which integrates social (and eventually physical and biological) theory, philosophy, and theology is the recognition that the distinction between the explanatory, the normative, and the strategic is a relative and conditional one. As we have argued elsewhere (Mansueto 2012) material systems are ordered to transcendental ends, and ultimately to Being as such, understood as neither substance nor subject, but rather as relationship and generativity. The cosmos (or cosmoi if there turn out to be more than one) is a vast hierarchy of degrees of participation in Being, a hierarchy which is both objective and normative.  This doctrine of hierarchy is in no sense form of legitimation for exploitative economic structures or for oppressive political or ideological structures. On the contrary, Being understood as pure generativity is precisely the opposite of any kind of self possession, and is present precisely to the extent that claims to consume are absent and power is exercised exclusively for the cultivation of other participants in Being.

At the same time, theoria must take into account, both for explanatory and strategic reasons, the fact that matter’s drive towards Being is emergent, uneven, and contradictory. What builds power over the short run is not necessarily what builds power over the longue durée, and if we are to analyze particular social realities and act effectively on them, we need a theory which integrates an understanding of how stratification and power work across spacetimes of radically different orders of magnitude.

In order to arrive at such an account of stratification, we draw on a variety of sources. From historical materialism we take a recognition of the primacy, across 5000 or more years of human civilization, of ownership of the means of production shaping power relations (Marx and Engels 1848/1993). From the interpretive sociological tradition of Weber (Weber 1920/1968) we a recognition that the primacy of class thus understood notwithstanding, status, understood as the respect accorded individuals, is distinct from class and has different bases (though in a capitalist society wealth and consumption both seem to confer status). And power, understood as the ability to get things done, depends not only on wealth and status but also the ability to organize and mobilize relationship networks. From functionalism we derive the idea that status hierarchies in particular reflect the relative importance accord various social functions (as distinct from their objective importance) within the context of a particular civilization, something which in turn reflects their hierarchy of values (Davis and Moore 1945).  We also draw on the idea of mana, developed by Marcel Mauss (Mauss 1902) and mobilized into a key concept in contemporary popular culture by the role playing game subculture.

We have, furthermore, already elaborated a synthesis of these three sociological traditions with our broader dialectical philosophy (Mansueto 2002a), arguing that social reality is shaped by the interaction between a material basis (understood as ecological niche) social structure (technological, economic, political, and cultural) and the teleological ordering of human civilization towards Being, mediated through various spiritual and civilizational ideals, which represent different ways of seeing Being. We have also extended the perspective to physical and biological theory by showing how such a teleological perspective is necessary to complete and unify science (Mansueto 2012).

Here we add two additional sources from the realm of practical political strategy. The first is the concept of the political vanguard, developed by Marx (1848/1993) and Lenin (Lenin 1902/1929) and elaborated by Antonio Gramsci into the idea of the Communist Party as the organic intellectual of the proletariat (Gramsci 1949b). Fundamental to this concept is the claim that the revolutionary transformation of society requires a conscious leadership. We will treat this idea as a humanistic secular form of the impulse behind earlier elite ideological leadership organizations  such as religious orders across the full span of human history. Here monasticism has been the dominant form, but military-religious and mendicant orders, “clerks regular” such as the Society of Jesus, and secular institutes and personal prelatures have generally assumed both a more active position in the public arena and are less tied to large endowments which make them economically part of the ruling class. Second, we will draw significantly on the concept of power taught by the interfaith organizing movement, and especially by the Industrial Areas Foundation, based on the work of Saul Alinsky (Alinsky 1971). While not intended as a comprehensive social theory or grand strategy, but rather as a political heuristic, the Alinskyite claim that power consists in organized money and organized people is both extremely useful and limited in ways which suggest critical next steps in elaborating a integrally political-theological concept of power.

Finally, we will argue that human civilization has never been “controlled” by organized groups of human beings, but is rather ordered to civilizational ideals and mobilized by structures which tend more and more to become autonomous powers. This dynamic is reflected in the pervasive sense, especially at times when such structures were very powerful (under Rome, for example) that the real adversary of human spiritual development civilizational progress was not any earthly power but rather the “powers and principalities” which acted in and through Empire and other structures of domination. (Ephesians 6:13). We will argue that with the emergence of Capital as an increasingly autonomous power that what we call the Saeculum has reached a new stage of hegemony, in a way which fundamentally alters the strategic equation.

Our aim will be a theory which has explanatory power across both the short and longue durée and which can support the development of political-theological strategy over the scale of decades, centuries, and millennia.

Our analysis and argument will be organized around the elements in the Alinsyite theory of power, modified to include a cultural element which is actually central to Alinskyite practice but absent from their explicit teaching. We will then proceed to draw out the strategic implications of this analysis, especially with respect to the question of what a conscious leadership devoted to seeking wisdom, doing justice, and ripening being would need to look like and what it needs to do.

Organized Money

 Power is the ability to get things done. It requires, at minimum, two people with overlapping interests and a common plan. More broadly, power is based on three factors: organized money (or, if we take a broader historical view, organized material resources), organized people (what is often today called social capital) and organized mana, or the ability to get people to do things based on respect for the values one embodies or represents.  We consider organized material resources first.

The historical materialist theory of social class remains correct in all its essentials. In societies in which real or imagined scarcity remains an social fact, class based on ownership of the means of production is the fundamental determinant of an individual or an organization’s ability to get others to act. And classes are divided, broadly, between those who have organized or inherited enough wealth that they do not need to work at all and can get others not only to support them but to carry out their civilizational agendas, those who have enough wealth (whether in the form of organized resources or skills) that they can work for themselves and pursue their own agendas freely, and those who lack such organized material resources and are therefore bound to work for others.

This basic tripartite class structure is universal in class societies, but the form of organized material resources and the means or organizing and allocating them differ. In tributary societies the most important organized resource is land and the principle means of surplus extraction is military capacity, generally legitimated by a sacral monarchic ideology. Under petty commodity production land remains fundamental, but specialized agriculture displaces subsistence agriculture as the principal source of surplus generation and mining and crafts production grow in importance. Warlord states are joined by private landowners, crafts producers, and the merchants who help them realize their comparative advantage in a developing global market as factions of the possessing class. And Empire emerges both as a condition for creating and protecting global trade networks and as a new strategy for exploitation in its own right, based on taxing trade rather than merely direct subsistence production. Under capitalism the role of land is eclipsed, on the one hand, by successive waves of emerging technologies, and eventually by the ability to continuous develop new, innovative technologies itself and, on the other hand, by Capital understood as a pure legal claim on surplus (finance capital), independent of any actual possession at all.

The articulation of the boundaries between social classes, the persistence of Empire as structure related to but distinct from Capital, and emergence of  Capital as an autonomous force, independent of any human ruling class present issues which Marx himself did not adequately address.

In its raw form Marx’s theory tends to treat peasants, especially those who own their own land, as part of the petty bourgeoisie and therefore not as a revolutionary class (Marx 1852/1993). This is clearly wrong. The type of resources held even by “rich” peasants do not allow them to pursue individual spiritual and civic agendas even if their consumption levels are relatively high by comparison with poorer peasants, industrial workers, slaves, etc. The same is true of many artisans and small merchants in precapitalist societies and small business people in capitalist societies. But is not because they lack the intellectual formation necessary to have such an agenda but because their labor is not centered on advancing such an agenda, but rather on subsistence and or luxury production. On the contrary, these strata have been powerful reservoirs of  spiritual and political resistance to the instrumentalization of human life by Empire  and Capital.  Sometimes this is based on a spiritual and civilizational agenda deriving from traditional wisdom (village elders and religious leaders) and sometimes from a vigorous autodidact subculture like that which emerged in the early years of the international workers movement and which was closely associated with Masonic and para-Masonic workers organizations, secret societies, and revolutionary parties. Sometimes these formations overlap, as in the mutual benefit societies formed by immigrant workers in the United States in the early part of the twentieth century, which integrated both traditional popular religious and para-Masonic elements. At the same time, it should be noted that members of these strata will often resist vigorously efforts at collectivization which threaten to deprive them of what autonomy they have and transform them into state employees. They thus organize and act across a broad political spectrum depending on the concrete contradictions of the period and conjuncture (Hobsbawm, Esteva 1968, Wolf 1969, Sewell 1980).

A similar caveat applies to those who have the intellectual formation necessary to have a spiritual and civilizational agenda but who work under conditions which deprive them of the “creative control” necessary to pursue that vocation as their principal form of day to day work. These “knowledge workers” are generally salaried employees and should be regarded, depending on the level of salary and the degree of professional autonomy, as proletarianized or semiproletarianized. The resistance to this proletarianization has been one of the principal sources of intellectual leadership for revolutionary movements, but also of ineffective sectarian politics and sometimes of destructive terrorism (Ehrenreich and Ehrenreich 1979, 2013; Ehrenreich 1989; Poulantzas 1975, Konrad and Szelenyi 1979).

Finally, there has been considerable ink spilled regarding the role of upper level managers, especially what are now called “C-level” executives. These individuals are often paid several times as much as the highest paid salaried professionals, are given generous stock options, and oven accumulate considerable wealth. At the same time, they can rarely afford to simply stop working and they serve at the pleasure of the investors who control the boards of the for profit (and nonprofit) corporations by which they are employed. Their level of autonomy is generally much higher than those of proletarianized intellectuals but much less than those of elite intellectuals who shape public opinion and enjoy full creative control over their work, but may earn rather less money (Ehrenreich and Ehrenreich 1979, 2013).

More recently, the lines between these two groups have begun to blur, as we see the emergence of a new global elite (Freeland 2011) which earns most of its income from nominal salary, as opposed to return on investments, but which is not exclusively employed in the executive leadership of major corporations or other institutions. Many of these individuals are high level creatives, founders of profitable start-ups who entrust management functions to older, more seasoned individuals while retaining significant control over their enterprises and a C-level role as Chief Technology Officer, Chief Mission Officer, or the like.

The second major issue which has dominated debates regarding class within the historical materialist tradition is the role of imperialism. The dependency/world systems trend (Amin 1978/1980) has emphasized the priority of imperialist exploitation of the Third World by the imperial metropoles to such an extent that it has tended to regard even the working classes of the metropoles as privileged and a part of the global ruling class alliance. This claim was questionable even before the current wave of globalization, especially in mistaking relative privilege, granted to ensure political quiescence, with authentic participation in the ruling alliance, though a case might be made that coming out of the Depression, New Deal, and Second World War, trade unions, acting through social democratic and social liberal parties (including the Democratic Party in the United States), and bolstered by the threat of the Soviet Union, were able to secure what we will call “magnate” status and extract significant concessions from Capital, even if these concessions were also beneficial to the then dominant heavy industrial, consumer durables led sectors of Capital themselves. And clearly the defining feature of social democracy as opposed to communism was its support for the Euro-American as  against the Soviet or Chinese imperia.

This said, it should be clear both that the power of the trade unions has been broken and their alliance with progressive sectors of Capital is now more a question of desperation than shrewd negotiation. The tendency of capitalist development is towards the unlimited mobility of capital and towards the equalization of prices across the planet, including prices for labor. As a result the significant privileges enjoyed by the working classes of  North America, Europe, and Japan are rapidly eroding and the both the value and the price of labor power there declining to global market levels.

Much the same is true of the so-called “national bourgeoisies” of the Third World, the existence of which many, though not all, dependency/world systems theorists denied. This group, based in emerging industries serving domestic demand was understood by classical Leninists and even by some dependency theorists as part of a broad anti-imperialist alliance. In reality, most Third World countries were too small for anything like the autarchic development strategy advocated by theorists like Samir Amin, and enjoyed comparative advantages centered on mineral, agricultural, or low wage manufacturing exports. More populist leaders have attempted to direct some of the surplus generated by these activities into investments which promote human development, and a few (such as the formerly hermetic leadership of Myamnar) have attempted a semi-autarchic strategy without a full embrace of socialism. But the growing advantages of participation in the global market, at least for elites, and the declining weight of the old peasant based at home have gradually undercut regimes of this sort unless they have significant mineral (and usually petroleum) rents on which to rely, forcing them either to “open up” to global Capital or face “regime change.”

The final challenge facing historical materialist theories of class concerns the transformation of Capital into an autonomous power, independent of any human ruling class. The logic of Capital is such that once an effective global market is established, national governments become increasingly impotent to manage their own national economies, even within the limits of basically capitalist relations of production. Efforts at global governance, especially in the economic arena, have thus far focused on creating a global institutional framework which supports the operation of market forces, with regulation only in areas which the very survival of the planet is threatened, such as climate change, and there only weakly. While there are clearly cosmopolitan elites which owe greater allegiance to global Capital than to their own nation states, there is little evidence that these elites are organizing in a way which would give them effective collective power comparable to that of the global market itself. Thus, while Empire persists as a global power which makes the world safe for Capital (and to be fair for some other social forms as well), the planet is increasingly dominated not by anything like “US Imperialism” of a “global imperialist ruling class,” but rather by Capital itself as an impersonal force. This development is analogous to the later Roman Empire, which emerged to defend and advance the Hellenistic ideal of life as a free human being and an engaged citizen (an ideal which in turn depended on chattel slavery in the West and on an Imperium which allowed control of at least part of the Silk Road trade routes), but which eventually overshadowed both the civic culture and the great Senatorial landlords who had created it, to such a degree that many in the West at least eventually abandoned it, preferring to pay protection to Germanic warlords than submit to instrumentalization by the autonomous imperial bureaucratic and military apparatus. We will return to this theme later in this series when we discuss the concept of the Saeculum and its relation to the structures of Empire and Capital, and how we might challenge them.

With these issues addressed, we are  now in position to specify what an updated historical materialist class analysis can tell us. While there is no longer anything like an authentic global ruling class, and while national ruling classes are increasingly losing leverage vis-à-vis Capital as an autonomous power, the basic distinction between those who must work for others, those who can work for themselves, and those who do not need to work remains. And within these basic layers, significant differences in autonomy and resource mobilization in turn affect the ability to build and exercise power.

Broadly speaking it is possible to identify the following social classes and strata within the primary social classes:

The capitalist class consists of those who have sufficient resources that they can reliably live off their investments and for whom work, therefore is optional and exclusively a way of advancing their own agendas, be these simply pleasure, the accumulation of greater wealth and power, or some higher civilizational or spiritual end. Given the capitalist character of the global economy, those with this level of organized material resources are properly called capitalist even if their principal resource is land and their methods of surplus extraction pre-capitalist, because they are producing for a global market which they must ultimately serve. Within this class it is possible to identify the following strata:

Sovereigns own outright not only enough resources to buy a seat at the table in essentially any significant political forum on the planet, but who also own political authority over a territory and its people or over a nonterritorial community. This is fundamentally a pre-capitalist form of power and is thus now quite rare, and exists only where supplemented by significant mana, and even there it is shared (as it always was in precapitalist societies) by broad family or institutional networks.  For the most part power at this level is no longer exercised by individuals who own it or exercise it for life, but rather by ministerial officers controlled by those at the next echelon of the capitalist class, what we call the magnates. And those few individuals who still occupy such roles are generally much less powerful than the ministers of the great magnate collectives. Even so, they have greater autonomy and remain powerful for longer than most magnate ministers, and this is important to understand when engaging them.

The most significant individual operating at this level is the Pope, but his authority is much diminished as a result of poor political strategy and spiritual leadership on the part of the Church. One might also include some of the Arab monarchs, such as the Sauds and perhaps the princes of the Gulf States. While the English monarchy remains incredibly wealthy its constitutional character limits its ability to leverage its wealth as power and it is almost certainly the European monarchy which comes closest in this regard. Constitutional monarchs may have royal mana, but they have lost real ownership of political authority.

Magnates are those who have sufficient resources to command a voice in global decision making fora, though they may well need to develop significant political skill in order to leverage their wealth as power and exercise it effectively. Their wealth is also generally sufficient to protect them from most market fluctuations, though not necessarily from revolution or civilizational collapse.  While some magnates hold inherited wealth which dates back to the precapitalist era, and often therefore have noble titles, generally at the comitial or higher level, which go with it, this is a question of mana, not organized resources. Similarly, there are magnates in socialist countries who may still lack formal ownership of Capital, but nonetheless have effective control over it. Most contemporary magnates are either the leaders of established capitalist families (e.g. the Rockefellers, Carnegies, Mellons, etc.) or entrepreneurs who have established new capitalist empires (Gates, Jobs, etc.).

Below this level we find the ordinary capitalists who have sufficient resources to support not only themselves but a substantial body of employees or retainers. With sufficient political skill they can leverage this wealth into a seat at the table up to the metropolitan area level. They are medium to large capitalists and often dominate a local economy even if they do not leverage their wealth as political power. Their wealth gives them political weight comparable to the baronial lords of the feudal era or somewhere in between that of the equites and decuriones of the Late Empire.  They are much more vulnerable than magnates to economic changes and more frequently fall into the petty bourgeoisie or even the proletariat, but may also accumulate enough wealth to achieve magnate status or build the political networks or accumulate to mana to act politically at the magnate level.

The petty bourgeoisie, as we have noted, consists of those with sufficient capital, either financial or inherited, to  work for themselves and to focus (in varying degrees) on advancing their spiritual and civic agenda, if they have one. Here again we can identify at least three strata. Members of the upper petty bourgeoisie have sufficient resources to support themselves in pursuing their own agendas. This may consist in an investment income human capital in a profession which is authentically their calling and in which they can basically “write their own ticket.” They can generally also support a small staff to assist with routine or supportive tasks. Alternatively they may have skills in the management of capitalist enterprises which gives them ministerial authority over the capital of others.  Or they may own enterprises which employ a significant number of other people but in which their own work in a professional, creative, artisanal, mercantile or entrepreneurial capacity, is critical to success.  Members of this stratum can often build and exercise significant power, comparable to that of magnates and ordinary capitalists if the also have outstanding public relational networks  and/or significant mana. They many function either as what is now often called thought leaders or as ministeriales acting on behalf of capital. In either case their autonomy is constrained by the fact that they depend on Capital for access to the resources necessary to act publicly on a large scale. They are also quite vulnerable to economic fluctuations, political attacks, and changing fashions. While many senior political leaders come from one or another stratum of the capitalist class, many are also members of the upper petty bourgeoisie. This stratum is the capitalist equivalent of the upper gentry of the feudal era, and especially the noblesse de la robe on the one hand and those holding knighthoods on the other, though the social function is rather more like that of the first.

 Members of the middle petty bourgeoisie have sufficient human capital to support themselves in a liberal profession in the exercise of which they enjoy significant but limited autonomy. They struggle with difficulty to focus their professional activities on their spiritual or civic agendas if they have them, and often face significant penalties for so doing.  Alternatively they have sufficient financial capital to operate their own businesses, albeit with very broad exposure to market forces. One could also place here those who have sufficient capital to give them significant flexibility in pursuing their agendas during times of unemployment, transition, entrepreneurship, etc., but not enough to support them indefinitely without sponsorship or a market niche.  The stratum also includes those with modestly successful small businesses which are relative stable and generate an income which makes possible a comfortable lifestyle, but which are not necessarily a full expression of the owners spiritual and civic agenda. While they have the space for active civic engagement and to build and exercise power on a small scale, members of this stratum find that too much of their time is absorbed in labor performed directly or indirectly for the benefit of Capital to allow all but a few to act effectively on larger political stages. This stratum is the equivalent of the lower gentry of the feudal era.

Members of the lower or proletarianized petty bourgeoisie are essentially members of the proletariat who benefit very modestly from the privileges still accorded intellectual as opposed to manual labor. They must sell their labor power to survive and perform their professional tasks, such as they are, in service to an agenda which is not their own. Resistance often meets with dismissal. Increasingly there is very little difference between this stratum and that of skilled workers, especially since trades and technical skills are increasingly acquired in the same community college and comprehensive university environments as the nominally more intellectual skills of the proletarianized petty bourgeosie. Historically this stratum included teachers, social workers, nurses, more junior engineers, etc. Increasingly it also includes many academics, especially those employed on non-tenure lines or as adjuncts as well as physicians and attorneys whose pay is still rather higher than most in this stratum but whose autonomy is rapidly eroding. One could also include here those with nominal small capital in a business they run by themselves, but which generates only a modest income, often requires superexploitation of the owner and his or her family (such as many new immigrant businesses) and which is extremely vulnerable to market forces.

Peasants are economically members of the petty bourgeoisie, in the sense that they hold a larger or smaller capital in land which is not, however, sufficient to exempt them from working. In practice, however, their pattern of political organization and action is very different from that of the petty bourgeoisie, partly because of the survival of precapitalist forms of both popular organization and exploitation. Village communities provide a basis in experience for collective control of productive resources which has made peasants the social stratum historically most inclined to actually embrace socialism (so long as effective ownership remains at the village level or lower). On the other hand, economic constraints (such as mortgages and other loans and tenancy arrangements) which in the case of the “small business” petty bourgeoisie are purely market arrangements are often transformations of older precapitalist forms of dependency. Peasants will often contest these structures directly, demanding debt forgiveness and land redistribution where a small business member of the petty bourgeoisie would never make comparable demands (that the loan which funs his business be turned into a grant in aid or that the he simply be handed over title to the buildings and land he uses). These factors on the whole make the peasantry a far more revolutionary class than the petty bourgeoisie.

The proletariat consist of those who must sell their labor in order to survive. Here strata are defined partly by skill, to the extent that it makes a certain type of labor more scarce and thus able to fetch a higher price  and partly be degree of organization. The upper stratum of the proletariat includes those with a combination of highly valued skills, trade union protections, public relationship networks, or political skill sufficient to secure for them an income comparable to the lower or middle petty bourgeoisie, but generally in the exercise of lower status trades or administrative occupations. One would also include here those trade union officials who are not themselves members of the petty bourgeoisie, first and many second level supervisors, and the senior enlisted ranks of the military and their equivalents in civilian life (such as powerful executive assistants, etc.) The very highest levels of this stratum may achieve the autonomy and/or build the mana necessary to build and exercise power at a level comparable to the upper petty bourgeoisie.

The middle stratum of the proletariat includes those with limited skills or skills no longer in significant demand who can generally find work, though not always at a living wage and frequently with long periods of ruinous unemployment. Members of this stratum, like that above it, may sometimes achieve the autonomy and or build the mana necessary to  build and exercise power, but only on relatively small or local scale (as part of a local trade union, civic organization, congregation, etc.)  and this is becoming difficult for workers at this level in the metropoles as their incomes decline and they are forced to work longer and longer hours just to make ends meet.

The lower stratum of the proletariat (often called the underclass) consists of those who lack marketable skills and can find only casual or intermittent work, those whose ability to work is compromised by physical or mental illness, and those who are incarcerated or subject to bondage legal or illegal. This stratum generally lacks the stability to build and exercise power, though if survival issues are resolved some may find the space to organize.

Finally, we should note that class is only one economic factor affecting the building and exercise of power. Sector and industry are also important. Capitalists, petty bourgeois managers and professionals, and workers in a particular sector or industry share interests with each other which transcend the class contradictions between them. This is a factor the significance of which Marx vastly underestimated. The extractive and agroindustrial sectors are generally the most reactionary, because their activities depend on ecological destructive processes and on the exploitation of human beings under harsh and dangerous conditions. And yet their workers will often support them. Industrial capital falls somewhere in between. As the level of technology rises, relative to that of the economy as a whole, a sector is more likely to support higher wages  that it workers can buy its products they (or the industries for which they create capital goods) produce. High technology and information sectors require highly skilled workers who can command higher wages and need greater autonomy in their work, pushing these sectors in a more progressive direction. Finance capital is rather an exception to this pattern. On the one hand it is itself a “high technology, high skill” sector and shares some of the political culture of the high technology and information sectors. But investments in extractive and agroindustrial sectors as well as low wage industries can be quite lucrative, as can complex derivative instruments which themselves create no new value.


Organized money, to be sure, is only part of the picture. In the next two installments we will explore the role of public relationship networks and mana in building and exercising power. This will, in turn, allow us to develop a synthetic picture of how power is built and exercised which will allow us to consider the current and emerging power map of the planet and just what kind of organizing process is necessary to contest the hegemony of Capital and Empire in a period of civilizational crisis.


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Race, American Civil Religion, and the Endgame of Capital

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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Saecular Hegemony

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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Sanctuary and Saeculum: The Desire to Be God

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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Is Humanistic Secularism Based on a Univocal Metaphysics?

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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