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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What does this mean?

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

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

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Fundamentalism is a Secularism


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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How Capital Persists – And How it Will Be Defeated

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


Or has it?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The same is true of other institutions …

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

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

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


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What Bergoglio Means

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

The Catholic Ideal

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

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

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

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


Catholic Civilizational Strategy

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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Beyond Solutionism …

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

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

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

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

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

Where are those philanthropocapitalists when you need them?


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The Meaning of Obama’s Second Inaugural

Four years ago Barak Obama took office amid the gathering clouds of economic crisis. His inaugural address, defined by its iconic phrase The Winter in Which Only Hope and Virtue Can Endure, was somber and represented the first call by a US President for a turn away from consumerism and towards hard work and a serious engagement with potentially intractable civilizational challenges since Carter’s poorly received “Culture of Narcissism” speech.  Now, four years later, the immediate economic crisis has past and a decade of war seems finally to be nearing an end.  The Democratic Party has fought back, albeit with significant losses, the anticivilizational Tea Party offensive of 2010 and there are real questions about whether or not the Republican Party can re-establish itself as a credible party of government.  Along the way Obama enacted a dramatic if imperfect overall of our health care system, addressing one of the major threats to the long term economic viability of the United States. Overall, it is an impressive record.  Spring, one would think, will now follow winter.

If this is spring, though, it is a rather chilly one. And the reason for this is not difficult to find. While the economy has improved somewhat and the United States has withdrawn from its disastrous civilizational conflict with Dar-al-Islam, the main elements of a broad civilizational crisis remain:

  • climate change and peak oil,
  • demographic inversion and resistance to the principal way of ameliorating this problem (more open immigration laws),
  • the declining value of labor power and of the rate of profit (and thus declining demand and difficulties in capital formation) in the face of technological progress and globalization,
  • a domestic political structure which over-represents economically backward extractive/rural regions and blocs the formation of a progressive consensus, even when a majority for such a consensus actually exists,
  • a global system which pits democracy against effective global governance, and
  • a crisis of the secular ideals on which our civilization is founded which makes effective leadership all but impossible.

And while the anticivilizational Tea Party offensive has been beaten back, there is lingering resistance to the profound changes which will be required if we are to address the developing civilizational crisis. While some of this resistance is at the ideological level –people clinging either to positivistic secularisms which promise technological solutions to everything or religious fundamentalisms which argue that all will be well if only we submit to the sovereignty of God, much of it is also rooted in resistance to the basic realities of life in globalized industrial/information economy. We have all become so radically interdependent on each other that “going it alone” is at best a luxury retirement option for a fortunate if eccentric few and at worst simply madness.

It is this contradiction –between the world as it is and the world as we want it be—that Obama chose to engage in his second inaugural. If the resulting speech was, perhaps, less inspiring (if also less dark) that the first, it is because its principal message was neither a prophetic vision nor a prophetic indictment, but something more like a reality check. Reality checks, however important, are rarely inspiring. And the reality to which our attention was being called is this. The scope and complexity of problems facing our civilization can only be addressed through collective action, action involving the state and taxation and regulation, not because these are values in themselves because we can no longer realistically do without them.

This said, there was a broader civic religious, liturgical context and political theological narrative in which this message was set. In accord with Obama’s core identity, which is neither that of republican sacral monarch nor prophet calling in the wilderness, but rather “organizer in chief,” the public liturgy of the inauguration said less about him that about the movement which elected him. The symbolism was first and foremost that of the African American liberation movement now positioned, however, not as outsider but rather as conservator and interpreter of the larger American ideal. The invocation was given by a civil rights leader, the music dominated by the Battle Hymn of the republic, and Obama’s speech structured in such a way as to weave elements from the second inaugural addresses of several of his predecessors into a rhetorical fabric drawn from the African American homiletic tradition generally and from the speeches of Martin Luther King Jr. in particular.  The complexity of this narrative is marked by the identification of the key points in American history as “Seneca Falls, Selma, and Stonewall” in a liturgy in which the invocation was offered “in Jesus’ name,” a practice which is (rightly) anathema in progressive interfaith settings, but still the norm in the African American Church.

The result was a public liturgy and inaugural speech which commentators have seen as marking a “left” turn. And in a certain sense it may. The right has been defeated and to some degree marginalized and a new definition of what it means to be American is gradually becoming hegemonic.  But do not imagine that Obama’s second term will be dominated by civil rights style freedom struggles. The agenda, rather, is the civilizational challenges identified above: climate change, energy, demographics, immigration, and global and domestic governance. The language of civil rights and the broad progressive coalition which Obama has organized will now be deployed to build support –at least in part through the new national formation, Organizing for America—for engaging these challenges, reaching over, around, and underneath what is like to still be an obstructionist House or Representatives.

When all is said and done, therefore, it is still winter, and still only at the beginning. Obama’s victories represent modest early winter warm spells; the Tea Party a very bad winter storm. Most of the winter is yet to come. And yet the thaw reminds us that spring is still possible. For now, though, it is still mostly a matter of clearing snow and finding fuel and staying alive while we figure out how to get there.

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What Remains? Finding Our Way Spiritually and Politically in an Era of Civilizational Crisis

Those who have followed my work over the course of the past few years are aware that I believe we are in the early stages of a civilizational crisis –that as a civilization we no longer know what we are trying to accomplish, spiritually and politically. Specifically, I have argued, while the secular ideal of transcending finitude and contingency by means of inner worldly civilizational progress continues to order our social structure and drive policy and strategy at nearly every level, the ideal itself has lost credibility. They also know that I have advocated a re-engagement with the spiritual traditions of the Axial Age –Hellenic Philosophy, Judaism, Buddhism, the Upanishads, Confucianism, and Taoism, and those which emerged from them, such as Christianity and Islam, which I am convinced are by no means spent.  I have also argued that these need to be brought into a new level of dialogue with each other and also with the “sane core” of modernity, the revaluation of the human civilizational project which characterizes secular society, as well as with postmodern hermeneutics of suspicion. But this is –and is intended to be—a broad mandate for dialogue and deliberation. Increasingly people are asking me what way I teach and follow, even as I recognize the value of others, especially in the light of the profound crisis of the two institutions which I served in my youth: the Roman Catholic Church and the international workers movement. It is the aim of this essay to provide an brief and accessible answer to this question, not so much because I believe that it is a way that many will want to follow (and ultimately we all have our own ways) as because it may help clarify my interventions in some disputed questions regarding the university, the church, and the public arena.

Let me begin by clarifying what I mean by a way. By a way, I mean, quite literally, a way of being, of participating in Being. Being a rock is a way in a very broad sense; being a star sapphire is a more specific way. Being a plant is a way; being a cinnamon tree a more specific way. And so on. But since (I presume) most of those reading this are human beings, for all practical purposes, we are talking about ways of being human, even if some of these ways point beyond humanity towards a transcendental end.

The term is, quite simply, intended to compensate for the inadequacy of certain other terms, such as religion, philosophy, ideology, etc. It does this in three ways. First, the term religion is associated in the West, at least, with theism. It also lacks precise equivalents in non-Indo-European languages. The term way embraces nontheistic, atheistic, and even nihilistic ways of being human –and ways which have boundaries which may not coincide with the difficult to define term “religion.” Second, it focuses on ways of life and indeed ways of Being and not simply systems of ideas. Finally, because of its breadth and the spiritual connotation it gets from its frequent use in translating the Chinese word dao, it makes it clear that every way presupposes, implicitly or explicitly, answers to a whole complex of philosophical and spiritual questions. What can we know and how? How is the universe organized and is it ultimately meaningful? Is there some first principle in terms of which the universe can be explained and human action ordered? If so, what can we say about it? If not, how, if at all, can we find meaning? Make judgments of right and wrong, good and evil? What does it mean to be human? What is an excellent human being? A just society? How do we get there? These are what I have been calling the fundamental questions of meaning and value. There are certainly other ways to draw up the list and, to a certain extent, each way is defined by the questions is poses and much or more than by the answers it proposes. But this list is broad enough to give my readers some idea of what I mean.

A way, we should note, may privilege the spiritual, in the sense of humanity’s ordering to some transcendental end or it may privilege the political, in the sense of civilization building, but every way, even those that are nihilistic on the one hand or radically otherworldly on the other, has both spiritual and political dimensions, and these dimensions of a way are integrally bound up with each other.

This said, it should be possible for me to define, at least briefly, the way that I teach and follow and am working to define. Let me say to begin with that my way is self-consciously syncretic. Having been born Catholic, I am heir to both the way of  Hellenic philosophy and the way of Israel, and to the particular way in which these were been brought together  to define a new Catholic civilization in Europe in the years following the collapse of Hellenistic-Roman Civilization and the Roman Imperium. I am also part of a modern secular civilization which, however much I may criticize it, has shaped profoundly the way I think and live and the problems and contradictions of which have in large part defined my spiritual and political journey.  And I live in a globalized society which has posed by challenges to these ways, insights not available within my native traditions, and different approaches to forging a synthesis between foundationally very different spiritual and political traditions.

How has this all played out over more than fifty years of study and struggle?  Let me begin by stating my two starting points, starting points which remain definitive of my current way.  The first of these is the way of Hellenic philosophy, developed through the long “journey of the dialectic” which began with Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, which continued in the great Muslim, Jewish, and Christian commentators, and culminated in the humanistic secularism of Hegel, Marx, and there interpreters. This way consists fundamentally of rising rationally to a first principle in terms of which the universe can be explained and human action ordered –and then ordering human action in accord with this principle, aiming ultimately at creating a collective political subject which makes humanity the master of its own destiny and, in effect divine. Most thinkers within this tradition have recognized that the resulting deification is collective only, leaving the individual finite, contingent, and alienated. And coming of age spiritually during the crisis of socialism (the traditions ultimate political expression) much of my own focus has been on understanding and coming to terms spiritually with the ultimate impossibility of divinization by means of innerworldly civilizational progress.

My second starting point was Israel’s encounter with God in the struggle with justice, a way which aims both at actually creating a just society and achieving knowledge of God, da’ath elohim in the process. This way, of course, merged with dialectics by the time of Philo, resulting in the various syntheses of the Jewish, Muslim, and Christian commentators, and playing no small role in humanistic secularism. This philosophical syncretism between Athens and Jerusalem includes not only Ibn Sina, Moshe ben Maimon, and Thomas Aquinas, but also ibn Rusd and his Latin commentators, Gerhsonides and Spinoza, Hegel and Marx, and their interpreters. If it seems odd to include militant atheists in the same line with Thomas, remember where even the most radically critical dialectics has terminated. The dialectical tradition’s engagement with the God of Israel yields both Fromm’s monotheism so radical that it becomes a nontheism and Derrida’s late discovery of Justice (read Israel’s God) as the “undeconstructible.”

This way has, like all others, run up against serious challenges historically. Rabbinic Judaism is all about figuring out how to be just, and struggle for a just society, in a recalcitrantly unjust world in which the people of Israel have become a marginalized and oppressed minority. Islam, on the other hand, insists that it is indeed possible to join truth to power and command right and forbid wrong, if only we can solve the problem of leadership and institutionalization. The particular synthesis of ways into which I was born, and which represents my “native” tradition, i.e. Catholicism, takes the frustrations of the struggle for justice, symbolized by the culmination of Jesus’ own struggle on the cross, as the occasion of the “dark nights” of the soul which stretch us towards and beyond the fully human, leading to what Thomas called caritative wisdom, or a nonconceptual, experiential knowledge of God based on the supernaturally just act.  These dark nights carry us beyond a rational dialectical knowledge of God and ethical/political conduct, through the illuminative way in which we come to understand the mysteries and beauty of a universe which is not ordered to us, and ultimately towards mystical union, in which we become one with the first principle which reason showed us but which only now, and still only dimly, really begin to know.

I know that this characterization of Christianity and even Catholicism will seem alien to many who owe allegiance to those traditions. And it is, to be sure, the result of a profound confrontation with what I have come to believe are irresolvable contradictions in core Christian doctrines. As one of my students taught me more than 25 years ago, the claim that Jesus was the Jewish messiah is inherently anti-Semitic and negates the validity of the Jewish way, a validity which, by the way, the Catholic Church reaffirmed in Nostra Aetate.  If justification is not possible through works of the law but only through faith in Christ crucified, then the Jewish way just doesn’t work. But if the Jewish way does work, then Jesus of Nazareth’s death was at best a tragedy and by no means directly salvific. Similarly, as my grasp of dialectical metaphysics deepened, it became clear to me that it was quite impossible to be both finite and infinite, both necessary and contingent. And so ordinary understandings of the divinity of Jesus must be abandoned.

One response to this, of course, would be to simply embrace Judaism or Islam or some sort of Unitarianism. But I have always been deeply convinced that at the core of humanity’s spiritual drive is the desire to be God, even if spiritual growth ultimately requires us to come to terms with the fact that this is impossible. And just because the crucifixion was not salvific does not mean it was not meaningful –as a sign of the way in which Israel’s struggle for justice (and every other struggle for justice) ultimately stretches us beyond the merely human, leading us where we do not want to go (John 21:18). And while entitative deification is not possible, accidental deification, the deification taught by Cyril and Athanasius and explained by Thomas in his doctrine of connatural knowledge of God is. This is the deification which consists in loving with God’s own love and so being formed by and joined to God in such a way that we authentically share in Her nature.  And so I continue to affirm my continuity with the Catholic tradition and the compatibility of my own teaching in this regard with what Thomas taught in the Summa, even in the face of excommunication laete sententiae.

This is what my own heritage as a Catholic living in secular, radically politicized communities with large Jewish and Muslim minorities allowed me to understand and live. But this was only a stage along the way in my spiritual and political journey. A much deeper crisis was to come. Understanding that Jesus could not have been divine in the sense most Christians imagine him to be was only a first step in realizing, deeply and experientially and not just intellectually, that no one can be divine in that way and that is, in fact, a fallen spiritual aim. The critical event here was my reflection on the crisis of socialism. My work on the religious question and its place in both socialist strategy and socialist construction left me with much to contribute to the political debate which followed on the collapse of the Soviet bloc. But it was much more difficult for me to come to terms spiritually with the impossibility of the communist ideal, the ideal of creating a collective political subject which would, grasp the “conditions, line of march, and ultimately general result” of the cosmohistorical process, make humanity the authentic “subject-object” of that process, “reconciling existence and essence” and, in effect, leading to innerworldly divinization. This is in spite of the fact that one of the thinkers who influenced me most profoundly, and who formulated this ideal better than anyone else, Gyorgy Lukacs, made it clear that “for the individual, reification remains,” a problem had which obsessed me ever since I first encountered Lukacs while attending Paul Ricoeur’s lectures on Ideology and Utopia in 1975.

As I was finally coming to terms with this really, I became more and more deeply depressed. I came to believe that humanity was trapped in a “contingency hell” from which not even God could liberate us. After all, there can be only One God, and “participation” in the life of God is still not the same as Being as Such.  It is here that my serious engagement with Buddhism began. I had, to be sure, been exposed to Buddhism at a young age. My family spent time in Thailand when I was a child and I was, in part, raised by young Thai and Khmer women whose responses to my youthful temper tantrums demonstrated a calm, a firmness, and a wisdom that my mother never mastered –a response which always seemed to include a visit to some tiny street shrine and paying respect to those who had achieved a degree of enlightenment which, they gently reminded me, I had yet to attain.  But intellectually I was as much an opponent of Buddhism as I was of Protestant fundamentalism or atheistic neoliberalism.  Aristotelian, realist, politically engaged and civilizationally focused, Buddhist nominalism, the doctrine of emptiness, and what seemed like an incurably otherworldly ideal were all deeply troubling to me. And, frankly, I just didn’t buy the idea that life is suffering.

Until I realized that I did. What else is an inescapable contingency hell besides the most profound and incurable suffering –suffering for which even God is not an adequate answer?  My engagement with Buddhism began at the practical level and was assisted by my already significant engagement with the Confucian tradition, and especially with the Song Dynasty dao xue, which joined a Confucian insistence on the centrality of civilization building and a metaphysics which affirmed the priority of Being over Non-Being, with a practical integration of both Taoist natural philosophy and alchemy and Buddhist (mostly Cha’an) spiritual practice. This practice was critical in helping me come to terms with the fact that there was, in fact, no practice, political or spiritual, which would allow me or anyone else, or even humanity collectively to transcend contingency and become the “unique subject-object” of the cosmohistorical evolutionary process.

Ultimately, however, I had to confront the seemingly fundamental contradictions between my Aristotelian and Hegelian philosophical commitments and my growing recognition that Buddhist practice was, in fact, illuminating. The groundwork for this had already been laid in Knowing God: the Journey of the Dialectic (Pickwick 2010) which, while affirming a metaphysics of Esse or Being, rejects the understanding of Being as substance, or self-possession in favor of a an understanding of Being as relationship, structure and organization –and ultimately as creative power or generativity. This approach allowed me to retain a number of core Aristotelian and Hegelian categories: Being, Essence, etc., while recognizing that individual participations in Being were, considered in themselves, empty of inherent existence. And even Being as such was not so much substance as relation, self-possession as a creative power that consisted in a pure and unlimited generativity.

These philosophical steps allowed me to understand clearly what Merton and other Catholics who have engaged seriously the Buddhist tradition concluded long ago: that Buddhism, especially in the tradition of prajnaparamita literature—is the apophatic theology or negative dialectics par excellence. Moving from metaphysics to spirituality or mystical theology, the message is simple. We cannot know what Being is for the simple reason that it isn’t something. We cannot know Being until we awake to the emptiness of all things in so far as the are perceived or pretend to exist in themselves. On the contrary, it is precisely through an awakening to emptiness that we discover Being as the pure power of creativity, a generativity which we know (as Moses knew yhwh) only in its passing.  The result of this realization, however, is not a nihilism or really, when properly understood, even an atheism. It is a recognition that we live in each other’s embrace and that we live by embracing others.

This said, like Merton, I continue to affirm that beyond any mystical union, as understood in the traditional Dominican reading of the Carmelite mystics and beyond any awakening to emptiness, there is a higher degree of enlightenment in which we know ourselves in and as Being.  It is, I believe, this degree of enlightenment which John Meister Eckhart sought to articulate in the fourteenth century and which the higher Mahayana and Vajrayana Schools of Buddhism point to with their doctrine of the Buddha-nature or tathagatagarbha, in which we all participate. Merton was working out this synthesis in the field of mystical theology when he died and the loss was immeasurable. It is our task to continue the work of synthesis across the sapiential and political disciplines today.

Let me say, in passing, that the resulting synthesis, even if it is forged through engagement between the ways of Hellas and Israel on the one hand, and Buddhism on the other, has much to learn from both what has come to be called Hinduism and from the dao xue. Santana dharma and the dao xue  were also forged out an engagement between the positive and negative ways: the way of the Upanishads and the Confucian ru on the one hand and the ways of the Taoists and Buddhists on the other.

So what about politics? What remains of the struggle for justice and its privileged locus as the place where we, like Israel, meet God? While I affirm the value and even necessity of spiritual practice (such as meditation) I reject the idea that this alone can lead to enlightenment. It is, rather, life –with both its beauty and its tragedies– which creates the conditions for enlightenment. Spiritual practice helps us harvest the lessons which life teaches. Of course politics is not the whole of life –there is whole business of loving and rearing children, aging and dying, all of which contribute in no small way to our spiritual development, a topic which merits further analysis and reflection. But politics is our public life, and since it has always been a constitutive dimension of my way, I want to say a bit more about politics before I close.

First, while the ideal of full enlightenment calls us to stretch beyond the merely human, we are stretched in and through human processes. The work of building civilizations and struggling for justice remains a privileged locus both for the cultivation of human capacities and for engagement with the limits of the human condition, limits which point us beyond the human and the political towards enlightenment. Second, as much as I may have come to reject as impossible the historic spiritual aim of the communist movement –the construction of a collective political subject which can make humanity the master of its destiny, i.e. divine, and believe that this fallen spiritual aim was, in fact, one of the reasons the movement often succumbed to totalitarian temptations, I continue to believe that the market is, by itself, an inadequate way of centralizing and allocating resources, for the simple reason that it is agnostic regarding questions of meaning and value and does not know what impact various activities have on the integrity of the ecosystem and the development of human capacities.   At the same time, I do not think that we really know yet how to transcend the marketplace without creating bureaucratic structures which unduly constrain autonomy and innovation and which create their own distinctive economic contradictions. I continue to believe in the necessity of conscious leadership if humanity is to progress. But I believe that this leadership must be predominantly (though not exclusively) a teaching authority and must be expressed in the context of a democratic and pluralistic polity with a strong civil society. In this sense I continue to see myself politically in the tradition of Gramsci and Silone and Mariategui.  Of course this tradition must come to terms with the fact that industry, which socialism never questioned, may well be destroying our ecosystem and that we need to transcend it in favor of revitalized and extended hortic technologies which cultivate existing potentials for growth and development rather than simply “combusting” existing organization and using the resulting energy to do work.  And we must come to terms with the fact that the “first oppression” and arguably the root of all others, is not that of some men by others, whether as social classes or peoples, but rather of women by men.

All of which brings us back to the irreducible and inescapable link between the spiritual and the political in finding our way.   I have always rejected and continue to reject the claim of the deconstructionists that it is rational metaphysics and the whole via dialectica which is behind “Western” technological ecocide, patriarchy, imperialism, and other oppressions. Quite the contrary, dialectics, as I argued in The Journey of the Dialectic, began as an attempt to overcome those oppressions. But it is, I think (as Mary Daly taught us) the failure to address the patriarchal roots of all oppression which left us open to an uncritical embrace of industrial techne on the basis of what it could do to advance human autonomy and self-mastery, and to imagine that if only we got the analysis, strategy, and tactics right we could actually become “the unique subject object” of the cosmohistorical evolutionary process.  Dialectics, in this sense, is always a partial way; it must be completed by higher spiritual disciplines which carry us beyond the human desire to be God, and even beyond a recognition of the impossibility of that ideal (which is one way to describe deconstruction) towards an encounter with Justice, which Derrida calls the Undeconstructible, with which we become connatural in the supernaturally just act, through an awakening to emptiness and a realization of the impossibility of any attempt at self-possession, to the full enlightenment in which we know ourselves in and as Being. Once we understand that, we can return to dialectics and use it appropriately as both a spiritual and political weapon, and begin to chart the next steps in a civilizational project now deeply in crisis.

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What is a University?

The following is the first installment of my work in progress, Universitas: Sapiential Leadership in an Era of Civilizational Crisis. I am sharing it in this format in order to catalyze debate –and, hopefully, sharpen my argument—before offering it for general publication. I invite your response, either through the comments section below or by email at, and look forward to a vigorous discussion.   


There can be little doubt that the university as an institution is in crisis. On the one hand, universities are a bigger “business” than ever. Once institutions which existed only in major civilizational centers, and then only precariously and with great difficulty, one can now find something claiming to be a university in virtually every neighborhood and suburb of every major city and in every market town of any significance in the United States, a pattern which is gradually extending itself globally. We invest more resources than ever in what has come to be called “higher education” and it plays an increasingly central role in the global grand strategy of civilizational actors at every level. On the other hand, universities have never been a more central focus of criticism across a broad political and ideological spectrum for failing to meet the diverse demands placed on them.

If we are to understand the nature of this crisis and how to respond to, we must begin by understanding the nature and origins of the university as an institution. This means situating it in the civilizational contexts in which it first emerged and the one to which it has since migrated. It is only in these contexts that we can define its mission –or the range of its possible missions— and then outline just how the university might actually fulfill that mission or those missions in the present period. This will, in turn, require addressing questions of sponsorship, governance and internal organization, financial support, and the programs of scholarship and research, teaching, and civic engagement which universities undertake.

This work is an attempt to address these questions from a very specific and well defined perspective. While this perspective has been laid out in some detail in earlier works (Mansueto 2005, 2010) we will devote significant attention to explaining and justifying it as we make our more specific argument regarding the university, since the latter will make little sense apart from that perspective. Specifically, at the sociological level, we will argue that the crisis of the university is part of a broader civilizational crisis, a crisis of the ideals to which human civilization has been ordered since sometime between 1500 and 1800 of the Common Era. Universities, we will argue, are carriers and instruments of definite civilizational ideals, and if we do not know what we are doing as a civilization we are unlikely to know what we want our universities to do.  Second, at the philosophical and theological level, I will argue for the enduring value of the ideals in service to which universities first emerged:

  • the classical humanistic ideal of a political life engaged in deliberation regarding the nature of the common good and the ways in which it is best pursued and
  • the spiritual ideals associated with axial and post axial traditions the pursuit of which, at least at the most advanced levels, has historically depended on (even if it has also gone beyond) the kind liberal education which also served the classical humanistic ideal.

These latter ideals, as they have come into increasing dialogue and competition with each other and with various secularisms, require such a liberal education if they are to be freely chosen and not simply embraced as a result of historical or biographical accident. Finally, I will argue on both sociological and normative, natural law grounds that it is the principal mission of the university to advance this complex of distinct, often competing, but interrelated civilizational ideals. While this does not exclude (and in fact organically includes) the cultivation of what we might call the “arts of civilization” (techne of various kinds) it is pursued first and foremost through what I call the exercise of sapiential leadership –leading deliberation among partisans of various post-axial ways of being human—and liberal education: the preparation of free human beings and citizens who can participate in this deliberation.

Closely related to this positive argument regarding what universities are for is a negative argument regarding what they cannot and should not try to do. While universities can be mobilized in the support of other civilizational ideals –whether religious fundamentalisms of various kinds or the positivistic secular ideal of transcending finitude by means of scientific and technological progress, they are in fact poorly adapted to these ends and such mobilization undercuts their ability to carry out their fundamental missions. And the currently prevailing understanding of universities as engines of economic growth is even more fundamentally flawed. This is true both at the economic level and at the substantive, normative level of what it means to be human. While universities certainly can carry out research which leads to economic growth, they are by no means the only or even the best locus for such research. And while they can train skilled intellectual labor, doing so does not by any means guarantee the entry of those so trained into some real or imagined middle class. On the contrary, as technological progress driven by research carried out by universities and other entities eliminates the need for unskilled labor and as universities train more and more skilled intellectual workers, the latter lose the monopoly rent on skill which they formally enjoyed and are increasingly proletarianized. At present only the most capable graduates of the most elite universities retain such monopoly rents, and then only if they actually produce a continuous stream of new innovations. And the privileges of this sector, as well, are threatened by the sheer numerical superiority of India and China, which can produce more high order innovators with much less per capita investment than the United States, Europe, or Japan. And while the aspiration of ordinary people to earn a living wage must never be disparaged (earning such a wage is the precondition for any broader participation in spiritual and civilizational development), merely aspiring to ever levels of consumption, apart from some higher spiritual and civilizational ideal is not worthy of our calling as human beings.

All of this, in turn, implies a variety of conclusions regarding the funding, sponsorship, governance, and internal organization of universities (including such issues as academic freedom and responsibility), the nature of the professoriate and its place in society, and the program of scholarship and research, teaching, and civic engagement in which universities should be engaged.

The remainder of this chapter will be devoted to the question of what a university is, considered in relationship to the civilizational contexts in which it emerged and to which it has migrated and will conclude with a statement of the mission of universities in the present period. Chapter Two will discuss the relationship between the university and an institution with which it historically had a very close relationship –the religious order or institute of perfection and its secular successor and counterpart, the political party. This relationship is central to our understanding of the university as once foundationally pluralistic and a place in which competing ways engage each other and as a community of those seeking to actually follow a way, led by professors who are real exemplars of a that way.  Chapter Three will explore the relationship between the university as a community of scholars, the institute of perfection as a community of practitioners of a way, and the other institutions of human civilization: religious, political, economic, etc. We will devote particular attention to the difficult question of who has the authority to found and sponsor a university and authorize the granting of degrees and to the delicate problem of preserving the autonomy of the university as an institution capable of criticizing and leading while at the same time ensuring that it serves the common good. Chapter Four will look at the question of the various members of the university: the professoriate and others who enjoy a ius ubique docendi, those who have been admitted to lower degrees, and students and ex-students. We will look at the question of academic freedom and responsibility and how it relates to broader human and civil principles of free expression and civic responsibility. Among other things we will address the difficult –and I think politically pressing problem— of partial literacy and of a growing population which has been partially but not fully initiated into the ways taught in universities, a group which provides much of the broad social base for challenges to its historic rights and authority. Chapter Five will outline a range of strategies for ensuring that the mission of the university is carried out, regardless of the precise unfolding of the current civilizational crisis. Specifically, we will look at ways to reform existing universities (and institutes of perfection), ways of creating new ones, and ways of conserving their traditions under conditions which may make institutional continuity difficult.

But first we need to consider the question of what a university is, an issue we will take up in the next post.


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The Meaning of the Election

Barak Obama and the Democratic Party have won a decisive if incomplete and uneven victory in the 2012 General Election. The victory is decisive because the Democrats overwhelmingly won two of the three the campaigns that they actually fought by a significant margin: the campaign for Electoral College votes and the campaign for the United States Senate.  The victory is incomplete because the Democrats were denied control of the House of Representatives. This is due largely to the fact that Republican state legislatures elected in 2010 drew post-census congressional district lines which undercut the Democrats’ growing demographic advantage. It is uneven because the results varied enormously across ethnoreligious and geographic lines. The fact that the President’s margin in the popular vote is rather small is irrelevant, and not only because that vote has no legal effect. Because it is the electoral vote which counts, that is what both parties campaigned for. Had the race been fought for the popular vote, the Democrats would have invested in driving up vote totals in places like Dallas and Atlanta, in states they had little hope of carrying, as well as in the major metropoles which they knew they would carry. The Republicans would have done the same in places like Orange County and Riverside County, California. We simply don’t know what the results of such a campaign would have been –or at least cannot infer it directly from the results of this campaign.

The more interesting question is what this election means. We will consider this question at a number of levels. First, we will ask what it says about the direction of the United States as a civilizational center –what it says about what it means to be an American. Second we will look at its likely impact on US global grand strategy and thus its significance for the rest of the world.  Finally, we will draw out its implications for the likely evolution of civilizational-political dynamics both in the United States and globally.

First, however, we need to be clear about some basic facts.  The Democrats fought this election, as they have previous ones, as the representatives of the more progressive sectors of Capital. But their base within Capital was much narrower than in the last election and indeed even in previous elections which they lost.  Specifically, the Democratic Party dominated fundraising from only one major sector of Capital: Communications/Electronics, which includes the Information industry. Health Care and Pharmaceuticals split their investments. Other sectors which historically leaned Democratic, such as investment capital, real estate, etc. have fled. The remainder of the Democrats’ very significant funding base came from outside Capital, and specifically from  Labor, Education, Attorneys, Health Professionals (split with Republicans) and the mostly professional middle class voters who contributed the roughly half of the ideological and single issue group donations which went to the Democrats.  The Democratic Party, in other words, while hardly a “workers party,” is less beholden to Capital than it ever has been and to the extent that it is, derives its support from Capital’s most progressive sectors:  the Information and Technology sectors. Much of its support comes from nonprofit institutions which are, to be sure, large scale holders of Capital (in the form, for example, of university endowments), albeit Capital dedicated to civilizational progress, but which also depend significantly on federal and state support for research and teaching. Thanks to his grassroots fundraising network Obama has increased enormously the ability of the Democratic Party to fund itself outside of Capital and thus to act with greater autonomy.

The Republican Party, by comparison, has locked up essentially all of the lower technology sectors of Capital. The only higher technology sector it holds, and even then not decisively, is Defense/Aerospace. Interestingly enough it has continued to lose support in the health care sector both at the level of Capital and among health care professionals.  What it has picked up is most of a finance sector which, in the wake of the 2008 economic crisis saw the effective collapse of the independent investment banking sector which often leaned Democratic.  This trend is no doubt reinforced by the decision of most investors to be cautious about investing new capital and to focus on investments which increase efficiency (and thus shed jobs) rather than on investments which create new capacity.

Elections, of course, are not won simply by raising and spending money. We also need to look at the demographic returns. These are not yet fully available, but some basic patterns are clear. The Democrats overwhelmingly dominated the urban, Northeastern/Great Lakes, West Coast vote, the non-Euro-American vote, and the votes of those whose religious identity is other than Christian. Democrats also won the women’s vote and continued to make enormous progress in historically Republican but increasingly global and diverse suburbs in major metropolitan areas.  Republicans won the, rural, exurban/outersuburban, Southern, and Great Plains vote. The Mountain West was split, largely between states with significant metropoles and large Latino populations (New Mexico, Colorado, and Nevada) and those without. Republicans won the “white” vote decisively and the “white male” vote overwhelmingly.

The only real exceptions to the broad geopolitical patterns are some pockets of Democratic strength in South Texas, El Paso del Norte, and rural New Mexico (all strong Latino areas) and up and down the Mississippi/Missouri river valley (which is the site of a large historic African American population , several medium metropoles which are not large enough to dominate their respective states (New Orleans, Memphis, St. Louis, Kansas City) and Iowa, which has a small city/university town, monastery culture which is strongly pro-civilizational. The only major exception to the basic demographic pattern is that Democrats showed that they can win white male working class voters when they do something significant to benefit this sector economically. Thus the impact of the auto bailout in Ohio.


What does this all mean? First, at a civilizational level, it represents a continuing re-definition of what it means to be an American –a move away from the conceptions of the United States as a white, Christian nation and towards a deeper embrace of de Tocquevillian pluralism.  The United States is, first and foremost, a place where competing civilizational ideals thrive side by side, contending with each other but also learning from each other in a public arena which has the potential at least to become the locus of real deliberation regarding questions of meaning and value.  The Republican strategy of playing to white racism –the dominant strategy of that party since 1968, and quite successful in many elections— is no longer demographically viable. Even with solid white support and overwhelming white male support, the Republicans cannot hold the Electoral College. And if the Democrats choose to, they can chip away at Republican control of the white male working class vote simply by doing a few things which modestly benefit those voters, something they have been, for reasons we will discuss later, very reluctant to do.

At the same time, we should point out that this redefinition of what it means to be American is demographically driven and geographically constrained.  It is only in major metropoles that the understanding of the  United States as defined by its civilizational pluralism is really hegemonic. Much of the vast territory of the United States outside the Northeast, Great Lakes, West Coast, and Mississippi/Missouri valleys and outside urban centers in other parts of the country retains a resolutely “white” “Christian (read evangelical Protestant) identity.

At the level of strategy, the Democratic victory represents an embrace, if not fully conscious or consistent, of what might be called the United States’ natural civilizational strategy.  In order to understand this strategy we need first to consider the United States’ global comparative advantages –and challenges.

First, as a continental polity, US enjoys unusually diverse resource base, including both outstanding arable land, extensive pastures, abundant energy sources, from fossil and radioactive fuels through water, wind, and solar power, and abundant minerals. As George Friedman of Stratfor has pointed out, our rivers make the transportation of agricultural, extractive, and manufactured goods relatively easy.  While we are not fully self-sufficient, at least at the standard required by a postindustrial economy, and while our geography offers us numerous opportunities to engage the global market, it allows us enough self-sufficiency to be rather picky about the nature of that engagement. And our domination of the continent, reaching from coast to coast, leaves us singularly invulnerable to foreign attack.

Second, because it is more immigrant-friendly than all but a very few highly developed countries, and because immigrants themselves tend to have higher birthrates, the United States is in a better position demographically than, say, most of Europe or East Asia. This does not mean that we do not face a challenge in funding income transfers and medical care for an aging population, but we have rather more room than most other developed countries.

Third, the United States continues to enjoy a comparative advantage in high end innovation. This is due, on the one hand, to our constitutive diversity and pluralism and to an educational system which has continued liberal education through beginning university studies and which has invested heavily in basic as well as applied scholarship and research. It is this same commitment to liberal education which has made it possible for the United States to accommodate growing civilizational pluralism. Liberal education is the condition for engaging questions of meaning and value across civilizational lines and thus for polity which is both civilizationally pluralistic and (relatively) democratic.

Finally, our historic commitment to high levels of consumption and relatively low rates of exploitation for our own population, while sometimes secured at the expense of other peoples, has forced a “high road” development strategy by making low skill, low wage production unprofitable, creating favorable conditions for human development. This in turn supports investments in education which increase the value of labor power and, as I will argue in an upcoming article, gives us a comparative advantage in trade and a naturally strong currency. It also gives us an unusual  kind of clout –as a global market. Export platform economies with which we may otherwise be in competition (e.g. Germany and China) are unlikely to try to inflict fatal damage on one of their most important markets.

With regard to our challenges, the following stand out:

First, the United States has failed to invest in the development of ecologically sound energy sources and transportation infrastructure, something in which we lag behind Europe and probably Japan, leaving us more dependent than we need to be on ecologically damaging and gradually depleting fossil fuels. While we have essentially no reason to fear external military threats properly understood (i.e. foreign invasion), this leaves us dependent on both our own reactionary extractive hinterlands and reactionary extractive states, distorting both our own public life and our foreign policy and leading to the unnecessary transfer of surplus to those who hold the rights to petroleum and other mineral rents.  Our position as a global exporter of grain and other crops as well as the viability of many of our coastal cities is threatened by global climate change.

Second, our population has become so diverse that it requires a transformation in our identity as a people. There is significant resistance to this transformation, as indicated by the high Republican vote totals and support for draconian anti-immigration measures in large parts of the country.  Unless our embrace of pluralism as constitutive of American identity becomes hegemonic, large parts of the country will continue to be left behind in development and the country as a whole will be held back.

Third, our comparative advantage in innovation is threatened by demands to reform the educational system in a way that more closely meets short term labor market needs. More precisely, the historic efficacy of higher education as a mechanism for upward social mobility and income growth is reaching its limit as developing countries like China and India, with much lower per capita investments but much larger populations flood the global market with skilled labor, making incomes for which ordinary university level education once sufficed accessible only to a tiny elite able to earn monopoly rents on skill and innovation –something which Robert Reich pointed out in his Work of Nations some 20 years ago. This in turn increases pressure for educational reform which, if implemented, will undercut our long term comparative advantage in innovation –as well our capacity to engage in public deliberation regarding questions of meaning and value across civilizational lines.

Fourth, because our comparative advantage in high end innovation is threatened and the monopoly rents on skill enjoyed by broad layers of our population are coming to an end as India and China flood the global market with skilled labor, our position as a low exploitation/high consumption and thus “high road” economy is also threatened. We can maintain our comparative advantage in high end innovation, but this is unlikely to engage the entire population. And if it did, then (in a market economy) the resulting monopoly rents would vanish. In a technologically innovative global free market economy the average wage rate will decline –ultimately towards zero (the point which is reached when all routine labor is automated). We cannot become a pure high-end export enclave like Singapore, for the simple reason that the sheer size of our population would undercut the monopoly rents at which such a strategy aims. That road is open only the city states. Nor can we follow Germany’s strategy of linking high levels of investment with a currency devalued by the partial integration of less developed countries into the Eurozone. The greater level of political integration in the US ensures that development gradually spreads to all geographic areas. And in the meanwhile, less developed areas, which are over-represented (because of the structure of the US Senate) undercut the implementation of such a strategy. Finally, for the same reason, we cannot remake ourselves on the model of India or China, integrating high end export enclaves with an impoverished hinterland. Assuming that it is able to secure its comparative advantage in innovation, the United States will have to find a new way to ensure that the resulting prosperity is shared. And this will require challenging the market allocation of resources —and thus our addiction to the (always illusory, for the vast majority) prospect of getting rich.

The United States understood as a cosmopolitan, civilizationally pluralistic project supported by an outstanding resource base, continued high levels of immigration, and an educational system which prepares people to innovate and engage questions of meaning and value across civilizational lines –and which finds some meaning beyond material consumption– has excellent prospects. The United States as a petroleum fueled white Christian nation with an educational system which trains skilled slaves for the global market is dead.

What I am calling our natural global grand strategy flows directly from a correct understanding of these comparative advantages and challenges.  First, we need to secure our resource advantages and improve our position vis-à-vis the threat of resource depletion and climate change by developing new technologies, especially ecologically sound energy sources and transportation infrastructure. We also need to begin to prepare for the impact of climate change on both agriculture and key urban centers, an impact which is probably now unavoidable if not necessarily inevitably devastating.

Second, we need to consolidate our demographic advantage by institutionalizing a policy of effectively open borders, limited only by legitimate security and law enforcement concerns.  This in turn requires that we consolidate the emerging American identity as a multiethnic, radically pluralistic polity and not the white Christian nation which so many still imagine us to be. We also need to plan for the eventual ebb of the immigrant tide as other countries resolve the internal problems which lead their most creative people to leave by strengthening support for high investment parenting and childrearing, providing generous subsidies for families with children, free day care and after school care, etc.

Third, we need to consolidate and strengthen our comparative advantage in high end innovation and our ability to create and sustain a civilizationally pluralistic polity by reaffirming our support for liberal education through the university level and our support for basic as well as applied scholarship and research.  Clayton Christensen, in a recent article in the New York Times (3 November 2012) argues that there are three types of innovations: empowering innovations, which make complex products and services available to a mass market, sustaining innovations, which replace existing products and services with better but not fundamentally different ones, and efficiency innovations, which introduce no new products or services but simply make the production of existing goods and services more efficient. Empowering innovations, he says, create new jobs because more people are needed to produce the new goods and services in question. Sustaining innovations replace jobs being eliminated by the phasing out of existing products. Efficiency innovations directly reduce the number of jobs.

I would suggest that there is a fourth type of innovation: fundamental innovations which create new civilizational capacities. Both from the vantage point of the substantively rational imperative of authentic civilizational progress and from the vantage point of creating jobs we need to invest first in fundamental, then in empowering innovations. Currently most innovations are directed at increasing efficiency, something dictated by the New Finance doctrine which encourages investors to increase returns first and foremost by reducing costs.

At the same time, we need to be honest with the American people about why we are investing in education and research. In an unregulated global market economy characterized by continued technological innovation the wages of most will decline (ultimately towards zero) even as their skill levels increase and that only those able to earn monopoly rents on skill and innovation (maybe 1/10 of 1%) will escape impoverishment.  This outcome can be avoided in the long run only by transcending the market order. (The same is true if the impoverished multitudes of the developing world are to escape from the low wage regimes which currently makes investment in their economies so attractive). Unfortunately we do not currently know how to do this. Historic socialism turned out to be a strategy for accelerating a particular phase of industrial development in a certain group of “left behind” or neocolonial societies. It has not turned out to be the strategy for transcending the market order which Marx hoped it would be. And we have not yet discovered a new way. The principal reason to invest in research and education is because they contribute directly to human development and civilizational progress.  The second reason is that they provide a way to ameliorate the downward pressure of globalization and technological progress on wages while capturing their potential contributions to human development and civilizational progress. This means modifying market outcomes by directly investing in fundamental and empowering innovations. But even this is unlikely to be enough. We need to make a commitment to an allocation of resources which allows everyone to continue to participate securely not just in production but in the development of their own capacities, in the life their communities, and in the spiritual disciplines of their choosing.

This latter change, in turn, means that the United States is going to have to discover, through its pluralistic engagement with competing civilizational ideals, some new source of meaning beyond economic growth. While the neoliberal claim that income transfers are always bad for growth is unfounded, they cannot be consistently defended if growth is our only aim. And growth itself is not an end but a means. Historically, it was legitimated by the positivistic secular ideal of transcending finitude by means of scientific and technological progress, an ideal which has now been largely rejected. Growth as a means of increased consumption is not a civilizational ideal but an abandonment of the human civilizational project in favor of what Plato called the “city of sows.”  It is my conviction that we will find this ideal in the deep truth, revealed by our civilizational pluralism, that there are diverse paths of human civilizational and spiritual development, and that most, if not all, are worth investment. Ensuring individuals and communities the room to choose their paths and the resources necessary to follow them is the only way to transform the global crisis of positivistic secularism and industrial capitalist society into the matrix for the emergence of something new and beautiful.

Thus far this analysis has focused primarily on the United States. That is because in spite of its objectively imperial role in the global system, the United States is a distinctive society with its own internal dynamics and imperatives and because it is these imperatives which, largely if not exclusively, drive the outcome of US elections. But the internal logic of the analysis has clear implications for humanity as a whole.  The logic of US society –at least the US society which has a future– points beyond any particular identity or interest towards an identification with the interests of humanity as a whole. If the United States is to secure its comparative advantages it will have to cease being petroleum fueled white Christian nation with an industrial economy dedicated to maximizing growth and consumption. Indeed, it will have to cease being any particular nation at all. It will have to understand its own development as catalyst for and participation in the development of humanity generally. It will have to understand human civilization as a participation in the larger cosmohistorical evolutionary process.  And it will have to understand that process as a participation in a mystery so great that it can never be definitively named.

In this way, even as the United States, with its recalcitrantly religious population, points beyond any possible white Christian identity, it also points beyond Marx’s secularism towards a strange and surprising possibility: that beyond fundamentalism and secularism Marx’s vision of a society devoted to the full development of human capacities might still have salience, and that the United States, which so long understood itself as the global adversary of that vision, might rediscover in it its own deepest identity. Warren Wagar, in his Brief History of the Future described just such a scenario in which the United States, led by its first “ethnic minority’ President, played a leading role in humanity’s response to climate change and capitalist crisis. Who knows?


Where do the parties stand with respect to this vision and this strategy? The Democratic Party, as we noted above, finds its base primarily among the most progressive sectors of capital (information and technology), in universities and other philanthropic institutions, among the professional middle classes profiting from globalization and information sector innovation, and among immigrants and ethnic minorities. President Obama’s greatest achievement is the development of an effective nationwide electoral mobilizing and fundraising machine, which has increasingly liberated the party from Capital, even as Capital has been abandoning it, and which has given the professional middle class and ethnic minorities’ electoral weight which is gradually compensating for the decline of organized labor.

The Democratic Party program tracks our recommended strategy quite well, even if it continues to be constrained by the party’s (declining) dependence on progressive sectors of Capital and the relatively weak (but increasing) weight  of the working classes in the class alliance which it represents. The only area in which the program is inherently weak is on the question of the aims of education and the reluctance to engage in straightforward income transfers to support consumption. This is partly because progressive sectors of Capital and rentierized professionals continue to dominate the party and understand that universal access to liberal education will undercut their children’s access to monopoly rents on skill and innovation. But it is mostly because the people as a whole have not yet relinquished their fantasy of someday getting rich. Because the support of the people depends on the promise of continuing upward mobility, it is difficult for the Democratic Party to be honest about the real function of universities and resist pressures to undertake ill-conceived measures designed to make them more efficient engines of upward mobility and short term economic growth.  It is also difficult to be honest that only income transfers will secure generalized prosperity.

With respect to the other challenges facing the country, the principal constraints are external to the Democratic Party coalition. Republican control of the House will make it all but impossible to make needed investments in ecologically sustainable energy sources and transportation infrastructure and support for high investment parenting. It will also be difficult to get authentic immigration reform, though the Republican Party is likely to divide on this question.  There is also real danger that pressure from finance capital and political stalemate between the two parties will force more draconian action on the debt and deficit than is consistent with long term development.

The Republican Party, by the time of the 2008 election, had been transformed largely into a vehicle of the most backward sectors of Capital, especially in the extractive sector, supported by a broad coalition of “left behind’ elements across classes that had fared poorly under a regime of globalization and information-sector innovation. Since then, the party has improved its position with Capital, largely as a result of the turn of one sector of Capital after another to a strategy focused on efficiency investments –when they are investing at all. This amounts to dis-investing in Civilization. It has maintained and even consolidated its base among the “left-behind,” largely by presenting itself as the defenders of the “white Christian nation” variant of American identity. Concretely this has meant a draconian stand on immigration, which effectively cost the party the Latino vote and vocal but not very effective advocacy for conservative social policy (i.e. opposition to abortion, gay marriage, etc.).

As we have argued in earlier articles, the depth of the current civilizational crisis makes it impossible to speak of a “ruling class” in the classical historical materialist sense of a class defined by its position in the relations of production which exercises largely uncontested hegemony over the social formation.  This is because apart from a compelling and shared civilizational ideal, such hegemony is impossible. Only a few sectors of Capital –the most progressive—are currently trying to rule, and they are able to do so only in the context of an increasingly broad popular and progressive alliance. The Democratic Party is the natural and historic vehicle for this alliance and the really important debates in US politics will be fought out inside the Democratic Party, between its properly capitalist, rentierized petty bourgeois, and working class elements.  These struggles will be over both substantive questions (the extent of the party’s embrace of the “natural” US strategy outlined above) and strategic questions. It is of particular importance that the party learn the lessons of the auto industry bailout and consolidate its electoral position by acting the improve the position of white working class voters, especially those hurt by the collapse of the housing market.

The Republican Party will most likely undergo a period of soul searching as it tries to come to terms with the collapse of the “white Christian nation” strategy which has served it so well since 1968. This will be difficult since there is currently no way for it to become a stable majority party. Its best hope is to return to a variant of the strategy pursued by liberal Republicans in the post New Deal Era, when they accepted the need for a welfare state but argued that it should be administered as much as possible through intermediate institutions and with as little bureaucracy as possible. The result was the development of some very creative policy proposals (e.g. negative income tax for low income families) which deserved implementation but presented no credible threat to the New Deal majority. “Liberal” Republicanism was above all socially and culturally liberal and based in the liberal Protestant churches (a reason for its decline). Adaptation of such a strategy to the present period will likely mean adopting a “social conservative but juridically tolerant” stance which fully accepts pluralism and just insists that it include the possibility of following a socially conservative ideal. Modifying the market order through the institutions of civil society, rather than the state remains a fruitful idea, though it is by no means foreign to the contemporary Democratic Party, especially its Clinton and Obama wings, which have largely captured the political and policy terrain once held by liberal Republicans. So this is not a strategy for a Republican majority. But then I am a Democrat … What it does is to suggest how the Republican Party might play the role of a loyal and effective –and procivilizational— opposition rather than an obstructionist and anticivilizational cabal, and ensure its own meaningful survival in the process.  The Republican Party of the future –if there is to be one—needs to be a party of Red Tories.

There are many, no doubt, who will regard this analysis as too optimistic. Let me be clear that there are grave dangers ahead and that it is by no means certain that the  Democratic Party will be able to complete the transformation it has begun and lead the United States in an even deeper transformation. And it certainly will not do this without conscious leadership from real visionaries, who are few and far between in the electoral arena. There is a continuing important role for those of us who have been called to speak the truth as best we can, even when it is uncomfortable, and who take a much longer durée approach than any electoral organism ever could. But things look much better now than they did two or even four years ago. The victory of 2008 has been confirmed and we are ready to take the next steps.

Let’s be sure we do.

Posted in Political Theological Analysis | 1 Comment

The Burnt Over Era

Just a few years ago, faced with mounting evidence of the inadequacy of classical theories of secularization, scholars were struggling to understand and theorize the “return of religion,” something represented, on the one hand by movements on the political and cultural Left such as liberation theology and the New Age and, on the other hand, by movements on the Right such as Christian and Islamic fundamentalism.  This “return of religion” has been the occasion of numerous theoretical innovations, from deconstructionist Acts of Religion and “weak theologies” of the sort undertaken by the late Derrida, Badiou, Zizek, Agamben, and Caputo through the very different critiques of secularism (different from deconstructionism and from each other) mounted by John Milbank and myself.  It is not without interest, therefore, that the WIN-Gallup International “Religion and Atheism Index” shows a drop of 9 percentage points in the number of people globally who regard themselves as “religious” (from 77% to 68%) between 2005 and 2012, as well as an increase of 3 percentage points in the number who consider themselves “atheists.”


There are, to be sure, numerous problems with such studies, which, among other things, shed no light at all on what people mean when they say they are “religious” (or not). And of course being religious and believing in God are two quite different things. Nor does the survey address the widespread phenomenon of people who describe themselves as “spiritual but not religious.” This said, I am inclined to believe that the data point to something real, something which I have sensed diffusely over the course of the past six or seven years. People are tired. They are tired of being preached at and judged and manipulated politically by religious leaders who claim to offer a solution to the crisis of modern, secular civilization but who in reality offer no such thing, and are simply exploiting their longing for meaning and their spiraling despair. And this is true both on the cultural left and on the cultural right and is reflected across most of humanity’s great spiritual traditions, if perhaps most intensely in Christianity and Islam (where the “return of religion” was most evident).


There are a number of reasons which might be cited for this change in mood. The first, of course, is the “new atheist” offensive of people like Dawkins, Dennet, Harris, and Hitchens. This seems unlikely, however. The new atheism is intellectually thin and misses the fact that religion asks different questions than science (why? rather than how?), a fact that this is admittedly also lost on most fundamentalists. At most the new atheism has made it a bit more difficult for scientists to engage religion (partially countering the very large religion and science literature produced mostly by scientists during the immediately preceding period, much of which was intellectually sloppy), challenging them to rally to the defense of more or less established scientific results, such as evolution. But this is, in my experience, largely a phenomenon of biology and has had much less effect in physics, which was always the center of the religion/science dialogue.


More relevant, I think, is the gradual recognition on the part of the people of the scope and depth of the sex abuse scandal in the planet’s largest single religious institution, the Roman Catholic Church.  It is no longer possible to deny that the sexual abuse of children, if not universal, is at least pandemic in the Catholic Church and deeply bound up with longstanding patterns of recruitment and initiation into the priesthood and religious communities of men.  It is not that all or most or even very many Catholic priests are pedophiles; it is that so many who are not have tolerated or even been drawn into practices which are universally abhorred by every or nearly every tradition on the planet, including their own. And this dynamic is, in turn, deeply bound up with the misogyny support for which the party in power in the Vatican has made the condition for continued communion with Rome.


And the crisis of the Roman Catholic Church is the crisis of every religious institution. Catholicism has cooked up its own particularly potent psychosexual brew, but it has no monopoly on misogyny or psychosexual abuse. The crisis of Rome can only draw attention to the extent to which Christian fundamentalism and Islamic fundamentalism and so much of the rest of the religious right is about oppressing women.


This is not, however, sufficient by itself to explain the turn away from the return of religion. Coming from a Sicilian family I was raised, in significant measure, within an anticlerical milieu which was founded as much or more on the clergy’s reputation for sexual misconduct as on any political or philosophical considerations. My parents monitored my relationships with priests carefully and investigated any lingering in the sacristy during my tenure as an altar boy as carefully as they would have a similar lingering in a public restroom in a seedy neighborhood. Many of my relatives had nothing to do with the institutional church except at rite of passage ceremonies. Others, like my father, made their peace with it, but never lost a skepticism that seemed directed exclusively at priests as opposed to specific doctrines or devotions. But even those who kept away from churches entirely were deeply religious, their homes filled with statues of the Virgin and the lives with private devotions. Or perhaps it would be better to say that they were “spiritual but not religious” avant le mot.


And it is not like the recognition of religious misogyny is either new or the private monopoly of the militantly secular. On the contrary, the most penetrating critics of religious misogyny (e.g. Mary Daly) have themselves been feminist theologians and much of the spiritual awakening of the past few decades has centered around the recovery of the feminine expressions of the sacred.


The scandal in the Catholic Church –and its official reaffirmation of its commitment to misogyny—along with parallel developments in other traditions has catalyzed some significant withdrawal from engagement with religious institutions. But I doubt very much that it has affected spirituality or religiosity at a deeper level.


A third explanation for the turn away from the “return of religion” is the fact that first the political movements of the religious left (e.g. liberation theology) and now the political movements of the religious right (Christian fundamentalism and Islamism) have been more or less soundly defeated. The collapse of the Soviet Union and the crisis of the socialism deprived the liberationist trend of the strategic reserve it needed to mount a credible contest for power and thus undercut the eschatological fervor which drove the movement in between, say 1968 and 1985. Being effectively silenced by Rome, and accepting the silencing, didn’t help. And it is increasingly clear that the efforts of al Qaeda and the like are not going to lead to a restored Caliphate leading a united Dar-al-Islam in commanding right and forbidding wrong through the world.


Or have they been defeated? There is, in fact, evidence that they have met a worse fate still: modest, incremental success.  Liberationists of one stripe or another, or leaders sympathetic to them, govern more countries now (Nicaragua, El Salvador, Venezuela, Ecuador, Bolivia, Brazil, and until recently Paraguay), on the basis of more or less free elections, than they had any reason to believe they could  take and hold by insurrection or popular war in 1980. And electoral Islamism of various stripes is proving itself quite effective in the wake of the Arab Spring, building on its success in Turkey.


The problem is governing.  People embraced liberation theology and Islamism because they had rejected the modern, secular ideals of deification by means of scientific and technological progress or the construction of a collective political subject and sought to re-situate the human civilizational project in a broader spiritual context which could at once ground their innerworldly aspirations for social justice and point beyond them towards authentic transcendence.  But governments do not create new civilizational ideals, much less a “new humanity.” At their best, they carry out land reforms and build roads and schools and clinics and create the conditions for economic development. If need be they defend their countries against aggression and oppression. At worst they shamelessly serve as the henchmen of the already wealthy, leverage political power to create private wealth, imprison and torture dissidents and occasionally carry out genocides. The only thing more disappointing than military defeat at the hands of the Empire is modest success at the polling place and a resulting obligation to meet eschatological expectations with mundane public policy initiatives.


This disappointment takes a particular form for the Christian fundamentalism which has been so influential in the United States. For three decades now the Republican Party has relied on the militance of Christian fundamentalists of various stripes who have worked the precincts for them, literally and figuratively, in the expectation that, once in power, they would outlaw abortion, draw a firm line against gay marriage, and in general save them from the chaos and social disintegration of late modernity. This group remains powerful enough that it is essentially impossible to win the Republican nomination for any major office outside of Maine without passing their (increasingly stringent) litmus tests. But in spite of many years of Republican government, abortion remains legal, the cause of gay marriage continues to advance, and the world is as frightening and chaotic as ever (at least to those who found it so in the first place).  The core of the religious right has responded by calling the bluff of increasingly more conservative “mainstream” Republicans, so that the people they are now targeting (e.g. Richard Lugar) are the very people who came to power on the first iteration of the social conservative strategy in the late 19060s and early 1970s. Opposing abortion is no longer enough. One must promise to outlaw contraception as well.  But in the process the religious right has scared its base, which is looking for stability and security, not upheaval.


Another way of looking at this is to say that the changes which the “return of religion” in both its left and right forms proposed to forestall have now largely taken place. The global market is triumphant. Another wave of peasants have been ripped off the land and thrown or lured into the cities.  Nation states and national cultures have been weakened, as have traditional institutions such as marriage. But the world has not come to an end. Second generation liberationists manage the integration of their economies into the global market, making at most a few modifications in the terms of trade. Next gen evangelicals, much to their parents’ dismay, are fine with gay marriage and can’t really understand what all the fuss is about. Whatever one thinks about these changes, one can only remain enraged for so long. Eventually you adapt or die or both.


The “turn away from the return of religion” is, from this point of view, just a very ordinary case of eschatological disappointment.


But is this all that is going on? Does the weakness of the ideologies of the “return” (again, both on the left and right) consist exclusively in the eschatological, or at any rate unreasonable political expectations that they created among their constituencies?


I think that the reality is, in fact, more complex. As I have argued elsewhere, humanity is in the early stages of a civilizational crisis. The modern secular ideal of transcending finitude and/or contingency by means of innerworldly civilizational progress (an ideal which is secular because it is innerworldly, but also spiritual or religious in the sense of ordering humanity towards a transcendental end) has largely been rejected, but nothing has emerged to take its place. Both liberationism and fundamentalism are ideologies of the earliest and, I think, now largely past stages of this crisis. Catholic liberationism, in its founding text, Gaudium et Spes, attempted to situate innerworldly civilizational progress in the context of a larger transhistorical vocation: participation in the life of God. Protestant, Jewish, Islamic, Hindu, Buddhist, and dao xue liberationisms, such as they were, attempted something similar with respect to their own specific understandings of humanity’s final end and highest Good. In this sense, liberationism really did represent an attempt to transcend modern humanistic and positivistic secularism and achieve a higher synthesis. But in practice, as Roger Lancaster pointed out in his 1987 book Thanks to God and the Revolution, it functioned as a linking ideology, binding social strata that were resisting or seeking to transcend modernity to what was essentially a still unreconstructed modern, secular, socialist project. That is not to say that nothing good came out of, or is currently coming out of, the regimes the movement helped create. On the contrary. But where people thought they were getting something radically new –a society ordered to the full development of their latent potential, rather than to using them as batteries to fuel economic development, instead they got a somewhat better deal as batteries.


The situation with fundamentalism is rather different. While it is a commonplace that fundamentalism is antimodern, as I have indicated elsewhere I do not believe that this is the case. Fundamentalism, rather, represents an attempt to return to early modern civilizational patterns centered on the ideal of divine sovereignty. It is an attempt to invoke this ideal as a replacement to the failed ideals of human political and technological sovereignty. This is why there is no Buddhist fundamentalism, in the strict sense (no God, no fundamentalism) and why Hindu fundamentalism is rather weak. But early modernity’s focus on divine sovereignty dissipated for a reason. Democracy and the market order both undercut the basis in experience for a single, univocal sovereign God. And while it might, at first, seem more meaningful to serve as a battery for God than for a large corporation or party-state, what people really want is not to be treated like batteries.


So what does this all imply, especially for those of us who have been a part of the “return of religion,” who reject not only theories of secularization but secularism as a civilizational ideal?


Let us begin by making it clear that religion did not, in fact, return, because it never really went away. Secularism, as we have noted above, is an attempt to transcend finitude and contingency by innerworldly means. If one wants to call this a spirituality, rather than a religion, that is fine, but various religions, in the sense of structures and institutions ordered to achieving this end accompanied the spirituality (Capitalism, Socialism). Pitting itself against religion was part of secularism’s way of concealing its real identity as innerworldly godbuilding. We might, to be sure, object that “late” modern or “postmodern” secularism is different, and itself represents first and foremost a rejection of the modernist godbuilding metanarrative. But when it is extended into a rigorous deconstruction of all metanarratives (itself just a generalization of Marx’s commitment to “a rigorous critique of everything existing”), it terminates, as the late Derrida demonstrated, in the undeconstructible, the demand for Justice which is just another name (Israel’s name, to be precise) for God.


Spirituality and religion, furthermore, will never go away. Being human means, as Sartre put it years ago, (noisome atheist that he was) the desire to be God. Even if we conclude that this is impossible, (as do Buddhists and existentialists) we must come to terms with that conclusion in the light of the underlying aim. And we seek God, or come to terms with God’s absence or impossibility, through definite structures and institutions. When people say that they are spiritual but not religious they are simply marking the beginning of a civilizational crisis. They are still seeking to transcend finitude and contingency, or to come to terms with the impossibility of doing so. It is just that no existing traditions or institutions provide them with a satisfying way. And so they window shop or free lance or seek using a private and idiosyncratic discipline.


This said, what I call the current Burnt Over Era offers us very precise lessons. The term (originally Burnt Over District), for those not familiar with it, is due to Charles Grandison Finney, founder of Christian perfectionism and sometime president of Oberlin College, who used it to describe conditions in Western New York in the 1830s, after so many revivals and reform movements had been through that there was no one left to convert. More broadly the term marks the profound disappointment which accompanied the realization that the visionary spiritual and civilizational project of the Second Great Awakening, after years of revival and reform and Civil War, led ultimately just to modern industrial capitalism. And this, of course, was the matrix out of which Christian fundamentalism (which rejected the identification of Kingdom building and civilization building in favor of a pessimistic premillenial eschatology) was first born.


If we are to respond effectively to the spiritual searching represented by the so called “return of religion,” and by the growing numbers who describe themselves as “spiritual” even as they distance themselves from “religion,” then we need to offer something which is authentically different from the modern secular ideal which makes human beings into batteries. This means situating innerworldly civilizational progress in a broader spiritual context, to be sure. But it also means redefining innerworldly civilizational progress in a way which makes it fundamentally about human development, technological, economic, political, and cultural but also and most importantly spiritual. We must, in other words stop using spiritual authority to advance innerworldly ends, and begin to organize and reorganize this world in a way that actually cultivates human excellence. Just what this means, of course, depends on how we answer some of the most fundamental questions which divide humanity’s great spiritual traditions. But I suspect that at least some of the answers will come as those traditions engage each other, thinking together about how to articulate the “innerworldly” (e.g. the demand for Justice) and the “otherworldly” (the pursuit of an Enlightenment which carries us beyond ordinary humanity) in a way which makes neither merely an instrument of the other.


Subsequent articles will explore this question in greater depth. It is, in fact, one of the principal aims of the Convivencia theology which I will introduce in this space shortly. In the meantime I invite continued dialogue.


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