The Real Class Struggle

Anthony Gregory does yoeman’s work in a recent piece for The American Conservative about the Tea Party and class consciousness in America:

The Tea Party’s rhetoric of defending the little guy against the powerful has always seemed discordant to the left, which regards such class consciousness as its own domain. The left has long identified itself with the idea of two classes in society—the common people and the power elite—each with its own, usually conflicting, interests. When left-wingers speak this way, conservatives like Limbaugh accuse them of “class warfare.” But neither side grasps the full picture: in fact, it was the classical liberal tradition that first employed the class analysis that has survived to this day in altered forms.

The piece got me to thinking. One of the reasons class arguments no longer really resonate with the American Left (or with the Western Left, for that matter) is that class no longer really matters. The Left no longer talks about class, and hasn’t done so since the 1960s, when the New Left was ascendant in at least the English-speaking world. Today, the Left speaks of identities — race, ethnicity, language, sexual orientation.

I think most of this can be laid at the feet of the Frankfurt School and their Italian friend Antonio Gramsci. These Marxist thinkers focused on the “social discourse,” on language and how language is used by ruling elites to maintain social control and perpetuate certain ideas. This notion of “hegemony,” as I understand it, was Gramsci’s answer in the 1920s to the “persistence of capitalism” (!!!) at a time when, by all rights, at least according to good Marxists, capitalism should have disappeared in a puff of revolutionary smoke. Capture the tools of hegemony — the institutions that control the “social discourse” — and you can change the language of hegemony, and thus change how a society thinks.

No doubt some useful ways of thinking about and critiquing power came out of the Frankfurt School. But mostly, in taking the command to engage in a “long march through the institutions” (Gramsci’s words), the world-be Marxist revolutionaries of the West became convinced — or deluded, depending on how you want to look at things — that the revolution was indeed a dinner party. That capital could be challenged, and defeated, by clever semiotics.

Whether the New Leftists of the 1960s actively believed this or not I do not know. They did, however, live like this. They wrote and published and taught and organized within the institutions they found, hoping to change them. And change them they did.

But you simply cannot be a real revolutionary if you have a mortgage. Of if you have tenure and a pension to protect. Real revolutionaries don’t have health insurance either.

And so something very interesting happened. These cultural revolutionaries, who took up teaching jobs in universities and seminaries (especially Roman Catholic and Liberal Protestant seminaries), who worked in government, think tanks, to a lesser extent in the media, and founded consultancies to help corporations learn another “discourse,” became an incredibly conservative group of revolutionaries. They were not truly challenging power. Instead, they demanded its expansion and the inclusion of the formerly excluded, just as they broadened the “social discourse” to include discussion of many people who had formerly not been talked about in polite on intellectual company (save as the subjects of medical or sociological investigation). And in many ways, I suppose this is a good thing, since it allows people to be honest and true to themselves and yet participate meaningfully in communal life.

But at the same time, the focus on discourse ignored many real things, such as war, economic policies (in particular the deliberate deindustrialization of the United States, a process begun in the early 1950s) and even the elite and popular self-conception of the United States. Eventually (I think sometime in the late 1980s or early 1990s), the only question the thing that had once been the Left in the US could ask of a social act, process or institution is “does it discriminate?” or “is it properly inclusive?” That became the breadth and width of its moral judgments. It was as if the actual organization of working people, the actually changing of the state and society became an icky thing, an untouchable thing, something that belonged to another era. Bygone days. Old promises.

(Thankfully, this also means, for the most part, America’s cultural revolutionaries aren’t busy shooting people and setting up internment camps to eradicate class enemies. They may wish to deprive opponents of social space in which to speak and even language in which to think, but that is nowhere near the same thing as organizing firing squads. And yes, organizing firing squads is what real revolutionaries do.)

More importantly, the Left overestimated the power of language. All capital cares much about is profitability, and if it can profit from “diversity” and “inclusion,” if it can produce an acceptable rate of return on a new discourse (and all the ways consumer capitalism markets goods and services), then capital does not ideologically care how it’s bread is buttered. So long as there is always more, or the chance for more. So, in many ways, these dinner party revolutionaries not only failed to challenge capital, they enabled it. This “social discourse” of diversity is so embedded in our culture now that there’s nothing really subversive about it. The long march through the institutions is mostly done, and the marchers have mostly won. Now, they have become a clique of elderly politburo gerontocrats defending their “revolution.” Champaign for everyone!

So back to Gregory’s piece on the Tea Party. In many ways, the cultural conservatism that has, in part, fed the Tea Party is an intellectually hollow mirror-image of this “leftish” cultural marxism. If social discourse and identity matter, then opponents would create their own social discourse and identity politics! And so the ache felt across the country because of industrial and trade policies deeply embedded in elite governance cannot be adequately spoken of anymore because the Left no longer speaks the language of economics and the Right can no longer do so coherently. The Tea Party’s rage in inchoate, like the rioters in the UK several weeks ago. The people who are the Tea Party know something is wrong but they cannot think their way into seeing clearly, and there are almost no elites in the US capable of leading or organizing them well. The Tea Party knows elites when it sees them (looking at the people who successfully long marched through institutions to effectively control them), but it also fails to see the economic elites whose policies continue to contribute to the intense insecurity and unease they feel.

I’m not sure there are answers. I have become increasingly convinced that we are living in a post-ideological and perhaps even post-political age. Politics in Modernity made some huge promise about the ultimate meaning of human existence, promises made most fervently around a century ago and to a great extent promises renewed and somewhat expanded upon in the decade or so following the Second World War. What people seemed to realize, though, is that while the state might promise something akin to earthly salvation, what it delivers best is suffering, deprivation and death. The state might promise to be the ultimate meaning to human existence, but what it delivers best is meaninglessness. I think people seem to realize this. It doesn’t stop conflict, nor does it end trust in government or the state.

But human beings want meaning, as individuals and as a community. We sense the state does a horrible job of that, but we also remember the promises. And they are enticing and beguiling promises. We don’t trust ideologies anymore because we know what they are capable of prompting human beings to do, but without those same ideologies, human beings cannot coherently organize the state in any positive way to accomplish any good. And so, people rage.

This is a dangerous place to put people. They want to state to work to secure their lives, livelihoods and the shot at a decent wellbeing for their children, but people no longer know how to do this. They no longer know how to organize, or even think about organizing, any any models or ideas we have of mass politics can always be logically linked to mass murder at worst, and exactly where we are at best. The liberal democratic state, for its part, is no longer up to the task, and barring a renewal I don’t expect will come, will only get worse at this. Elites in the West increasingly are incapable of governing because they cannot think very well anymore, and they certainly cannot challenge the economic power that is diminishing the lives of so many (but enriching theirs). And I think the people they govern know that. But the governed have no idea what to do either.

I have no answers. I have no proposal for a program. I only have observations. Something is happening. There is no telling what people will do when they hold on to the promises of Modernity in the face of their slow but constant evaporation. God help us all if they suddenly get a language to articulate their real fears and desires.

The Moral Idiocy of Humanism (And Liberal Religion)

Michael Lind encapsulates all of my issues with humanism (secular and religious) in a nifty little essay at Salon:

For all the variations, the common theory of human nature underlying contemporary secular humanism seems to be cosmopolitan utilitarianism, the conviction that human beings, if liberated from superstition by science, would behave less like selfish, scheming social apes and more like self-sacrificing social insects, giving their all for the good of the 7 billion members of the global human hive. [Italics mine – CHF] “Life’s fulfillment emerges from individual participation in the service of human ideals…” says Humanist Manifesto III. “Working to benefit society maximizes individual happiness.”   

The secular humanist movement avoids the difficult question of the coexistence of in-group altruism and inter-group rivalries by imagining, with John Lennon, that conflicts would vanish if only people stopped being religious and patriotic.  

The bit I put in italics is the best description of the misguided ideals of the Enlightenment — that human beings, liberated from superstition by science, will act less like selfish individuals and more like hive insects, cognizant of the whole of humanity as their “tribe,” the collective to which they owe allegiance, loyalty and love. And since the late 18th century, thanks to the likes of Schliermacher, the liberal church has been the handmaiden to this Humanist agenda, advancing it as its own.

In his essay, Lind correctly notes that science — so far as it is a neutral observer rather than a culturally constructed way of knowing and manipulating things (and this assumes neutral observation is possible, and I’m not sure it is) — can tell us nothing about human beings ought to act. Science, at its best, can describe the “is” but never the “ought.” Humanists who believe science does or can are engaging in an act of faith no different than confessing Christ as the Risen Son of God or Muhammad as God’s messenger. Their’s is a hope in the unseen.

And, I will add, the unseeable. Because it is a false hope.

Lind probably wouldn’t go that far. But he notes that much of Humanism’s professed faith (citing various manifestoes issued since 1933, elite documents which probably reflect the rough humanism believed in by most humanists) is tawdry and sentimental. And for many humanist intellectuals, it is a faith in the whole of humanity that demands the global organization — world government — of human beings in order to create the conditions whereby people can stop being primates and become bugs in the great global hive. Bugs whose live do not matter and have no meaning save that they are lived and sacrificed for the good of the hive.

But I would certainly go that far. In fact, I’d go farther. In order for Enlightenment Humanism to realize its dreams, it must wield state power, because the state is the means of human organization in Modernity. And various forms of it have wielded state power, from Naziism to Soviet Communism to Liberal Democracy. Lind quotes both Woodrow Wilson and Theodore Roosevelt as convinced believers is Darwinian evolution, comparing their 100-year-old confessions with the unwillingness of today’s Republicans to confess much of anything other than a literal reading of Genesis as factual truth (as opposed to poetic truth). But Lind fails to mention that both Wilson and Roosevelt were also strong believers in Social Darwinism. Indeed, 100 years ago, people did not believe in Darwinian evolution without believing in Social Darwinism. They were a bundled pair. And that was Darwinism in power.

And the Liberal Church — the church which surrendered to the truth claims of The Enlightenment — has been the chaplain of Humanism in action, chaplain to the state, muddling a theology of the Kingdom of God from the promises of the Enlightenment and the ability of industrialization to create wealth never before seen in human history. Human beings became good enough to create the Kingdom of God and welcome Jesus upon his return. So the Liberal churches have abandoned an understanding of human beings as grounded and trapped in their sinfulness and needing that relationship with God in order to relate in love with each other for a tawdry and sentimental anthropology grounded in the hope that, once freed of superstition, human beings would become good enough — on their own — to be less selfish and cruel and more altruistic and self-sacrificing. Less like monkeys, more like ants.

I agree with the Radical Orthodox that the church must challenge the truth claims of the Enlightenment and Modernity. (I also appreciate he risks involved in this; Rome stuck its fingers in its ears and for decades sang an off-key “la la la!” in attempt to ignore the Enlightenment and Modernity, looking only very stupid in the process.) This does not mean loudly and stupidly proclaiming “the Earth is flat” or “God created the world in six 24-hour periods some 6,000 years ago, as calculated more or less by Bishop Ussher.”

Rather, it means proclaiming what we understand morally about the nature of humanity. It means refuting Humanist optimism, and being uncompromising in doing so. When it is said, “people are good enough,” we must respond with an emphatic “no, we are not.” When some unattainable goal is put forth (such as eradicating poverty) and it is said “yes, we can,” we must loudly and constantly proclaim “no, we can’t.” We may have even have to say, on occasion, “we must not” or “we should not even try.” We must stand against the false hope in human beings with what we understand to be a very real hope of God’s grace present in Jesus Christ. (Remember, I am speaking now to the church and of the church.) And we must be careful how we use the tools of Modernity. I’m all for John Millibank’s refutation of the social sciences, but I also understand that to be impractical and even a bit foolish.

More than anything, it means confessing that as human beings, we are neither monkeys (constrained solely by our natures) nor insects (existing solely for the well-being of the hive). Both views tend to rob human beings of their dignity, and both also tend to serve power. (I am more concerned about the latter, however, as it becomes a way for the powerful to sacrifice the weakest against their will. In a socially and political liberal religious confession, opposition to “nihilistic individualism” tends to become an embrace of a “nihilistic collectivism” that does in fact see the whole of humanity as a kind of hive for which we should all live, sacrifice and die. Or be compelled to live, sacrifice and die.)

And it means, I think, challenging the notion that literal truth is the only truth that matters. Poetic truth is a truth far more powerful than literal truth, and science has a problem with poetic truth because it cannot be measured. Humanists do believe in a poetic truth (indeed, the various flavors of scientism only work as ethical systems when they embrace poetic truth), but as Lind points out, it is a tawdry and sentimental truth that does a poor job of ascribing meaning to human endeavors and cannot truly reflect human hopes. Poetic truth is an entirely subjective truth (albeit one people can share), and as Science and Humanism profess a faith in the “objective,” at some point, the language of Enlightenment is going to fail us. Which is okay.

As the church, we have a language for that truth. It’s called worship. It’s called liturgy. And this is the language, the poetic truth, we should speak constantly to the world.

What Happens to Obsolete Military Alliances

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) was formed in the early 1950s in response to the consolidation of Soviet power in Eastern Europe and the “dropping” of Iron Curtain across the continent. It was designed to fight exactly one war — World War Three, the grand clash between the United States and the Soviet Union fought primarily in Europe and the North Atlantic (hence, I bet, the alliance’s name).

There were several different “scenarios” for such a war, and by the 1970s, it became institutionalized as beginning in the Fulda Gap, a place that was once between the Germanies* where Soviet motorized rifle divisions would first drive into Western Europe. But it would have been a global endeavor.

In any event, the USSR and its attached military “alliance,” the Warsaw Pact, went out of business in 1991. Kaput without any real kablooey. At that point, it would have been perfect for NATO, its one and only trained for war now an utter impossibility, to have had a great victory big party, invite the losers in a show of magnanimity and shower them with food, beer and wine, woken up the next morning and in the blurry headache of the hangover, gone right out of business. American troops should have permanently left Europe with a promise that, if needed, we’ll come back. And in order to prove that, we’ll practice coming back every now and again.

Instead, NATO did not go out of business. It found new things to do, focusing on stuff like international trade, climate change and the drugs trade. (I wonder how many good conservative American militarists know that U.S. money for NATO funds action on global climate change?)

And since that one-and-only war became an impossibility, NATO has waged four wars — in Bosnia, Kosovo, Afghanistan and now Libya. NATO remains engaged in all of these places, with troops on the ground still maintaining peace in Bosnia and Kosovo, troops on the ground maintaining not much of anything in Afghanistan, and planes buzzing Libya bombing stuff with no sign the bombing is accomplishing much or that it will ever come to an end.

So this is what happens to obsolete military alliances — they just wage war until they are finally beaten (or exhausted, same thing) and only then can they truly go out of business. At some point, some people may begin to wonder: what was the point of winning the Cold War, anyway? Because I’m not sure I know.


*That just looks so strange, referring to Germany in the plural.