Against Third Worldism

 

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

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

Some Third Worldism –especially the economistic variety represented by Jason Unruhe  (https://www.youtube.com/user/MaoistRebelNews2/about )— is simply and obviously wrong. Specifically, the idea that revolutionary potential is determined primarily or exclusively by the intensity of exploitation—represents a very simple minded misreading of what Eric Wolf rightly called “the peasant wars of the twentieth century (Wolf 1969).” If this sort of economistic Third Worldism was correct, then most of the planet would have been in state of permanent revolution since the advent of the Bronze Age.

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

References

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

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

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

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

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

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

Marx, Karl.

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

 

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The Dark Enlightenment: Accelerationism and Traditionalism on the Global Right

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

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

What Happened?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

What is the Dark Enlightenment?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Strategic Implications

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

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

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

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

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

References

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Land, Nick. 2012. The Dark Enlightenment. Accessed at http://www.thedarkenlightenment.com/the-dark-enlightenment-by-nick-land/

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

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

Moldberg, Mencius. 2008. “An open letter to open minded progressives,” in Unqualified Reservations.  Accessed at http://unqualified-reservations.blogspot.com/2008/04/open-letter-to-open-minded-progressives.html

More, Max.  1990. “Transhumanism: Towards a Futurist Philosophy,” Extropy 6,. Accessed at http://fennetic.net/irc/extropy/ext6.pdf

Valizadeh, Roosh. 2017. Return of Kings. Accessed at http://www.returnofkings.com/52295/top-35-most-important-articles-on-rok

Williams, Alex and Srnicek, Nick.  2013. “#Accelerate: Manifesto for an Accelerationist Politics,” Critical Legal Studies. Accessed at http://criticallegalthinking.com/2013/05/14/accelerate-manifesto-for-an-accelerationist-politics/

 

 

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

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

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Against Normalization

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

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

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

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

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

What could President Obama do?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Eighteenth Brumaire of Donald Trump

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

Karl Marx. The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Theories of Racism, Ethnicity, and National Identity

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

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

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

 

Essentialism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Planes of Difference in Which Everything is the Same

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Historicisms

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

Heideggerian Semifoundationalist Populism

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

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

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

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

 

Historical Materialism

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

An Alternative

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

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

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

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

 

 

Ethnicity, Capital, and Empire

Caste/Class

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

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

 

The Black, Chicano, and other National Theses

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

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

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

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

 

Ethnicity and Class, Historically and in the Present Period

Before Capital

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

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

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

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

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

 

Primitive Accumulation

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

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

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

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

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

Let us see how this worked.

Class and Race

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

Global Capital

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

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

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

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

 

What is to Be Done?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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 Notes

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Against Maximalism

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

 

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

 

 

What is Revolution?

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

How Do Revolutions Take Place?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

The Bern is Not a Revolution

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

A Longue Durée Strategy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

References

Bellah, Robert. 1973 Durkheim on Morality and Society, (editor) Chicago: University of Chicago Press

Fukuyama, Francis. 2011. The Origins of Political Order. New York: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux

Hodges, Geoffrey. 1986. The Intellectual Foundations of the Nicaraguan Revolution. Austin: University of Texas Press

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

Lancaster, Roger. 1988 Thanks to God and the Revolution. Berkeley: University of California Press

Lukacs, Georgi. 1922/1971. History and Class Consciousness, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Mansueto, Anthony. 1995. Towards Synergism: The Cosmic Significance of the Human Civilizational Project. Lanham, MD: University Press of America.

———. 2002. Religion and Dialectics. Lanham, MD: University Press of America.

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

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

Marx, Karl. 1843/1978. “Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right: Introduction,” in Marx-Engels Reader, New York: Norton.

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

———. 1846/1978.    The German Ideology, in Marx-Engels Reader. New York: Norton.

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

Marx, Karl. 1844/1978. Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts. New York: Norton.

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

Skocpol, Theda. 1979. States and Social Revolutions: A Comparative Analysis of France, Russia, and China. New York and Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Weber, Max. 1920/1968. The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. New York: Scribners

_____. 1921/1968.      Economy and Society. New York: Bedminster

 

 

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

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Sanctuary and Commons

The Current Situation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The New Political Spectrum

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sanctuary and Commons

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Strategy for the Longue Durée

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Crisis of the Republican Party and the Danger of Fascism

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

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

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

 

The Republican Party

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Fascism

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

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

Let us consider each of these elements in turn.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Distinguishing between fascism and other populisms requires that we consider a variety of economic, political, and ideological factors. Populism developed along with nation-states and like this process its political valence was ambiguous from the beginning. Nation states did create a vehicle through which democratic aspirations could be expressed, but they also fractured broader identities with a strong cosmopolitan element, such as Christendom and Dar-al-Islam and always involved some element of what today would be called ethnic cleansing. In Spain and later in Latin America for example Reconquista and Conquista mobilized ancient antisemitisms and emerging concepts of whiteness and sangre azul to differentiate the emerging Spanish nation from the Jews and moriscos of al-Andalus and later to create a complex hierarchy of castas in the New World. In England, on the other hand, the concept of race initially helped constitute the popular subject of the English and Glorious Revolutions, and pit the English people against the Norman monarchy and aristocracy. In France philosophers of the Ancien Regime argued against the emerging concept of a secular, democratic French nation by imagining the aristocracy as the descendants of (racially superior) Frankish conquerors whose rights they defended against a “nation born of slaves.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let us continue …

 



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

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Frankfurt-Main: Klosterman, 1937/1989.

[12] Millerman, Michael. “Heidegger Left and Right,” in The Fourth Political Theory, http://www.4pt.su/en/content/heidegger-left-and-right

[13] MacWilliams, Matthew. “Donald Trump is gaining authoritarian primary voters,” LSE US Centre. 2016.01.27. http://blogs.lse.ac.uk/usappblog/2016/01/27/donald-trump-is-attracting-authoritarian-primary-voters-and-it-may-help-him-to-gain-the-nomination/

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Engaging Those Left Behind

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Against the New Atheism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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