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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Where Does Univocal Metaphysics Come From?

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

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

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

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

Recently, however, I have wanted to dig more deeply, impelled by a troubling claim made by John Milbank in an unpublished article some years ago that Judaism and Islam, because of their focus on the fulfillment of the Law, are incapable of a metaphysics of participation, and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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What does this mean?

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

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

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