Valley

Remember David Bentley Hart’s 2003 essay, “Christ and Nothing”?

Like most first year theology graduate students, the article was a breath of fresh air – something to actually rival the long undergraduate trend of “postmodern a/theology.” After reading Hart, my Caputo and Taylor books were quickly tossed to the wayside and tagged for the return pile.

Like most things in life, the initial allure of Hart’s work began to wane. Years have passed since my graduate school days and it’s now Hart’s books that are collecting dust on the bookshelf, looming as relics of a bygone age.

But a recent article from The Baffler prompted me to return to Hart’s ruminations on the modern worship of the nothing. In  “Silicon Valley’s Cult of Nothing,” Dale Lately traces the rise of the Valley’s cult of immaterialism and the obsessive drive for pure nothingness. The Valley heralds a new world order no more waste, no more tangible money transactions, and of course, no more paper. All that is solid melts into pure cloud computing.

Lately right labels this order of things as the “cult of immaterialism,” made up of an unholy mixture of bloated marketing departments and adulterated Platonism. “Whereas the Industrial Revolution turned ideas into things,” writes Lately, “the Information Revolution turns things into ideas—from coins to Bitcoins, from songs to strings of ones and zeroes.”

Lately’s prognosis mirrors Hart’s thesis from over ten years ago. At the heart of modernity, Hart says, is the worship of nothingness, a god “more elusive, protean, and indomitable than Apollo or Dionysus” (4). As Hart explains,

As modern men and women – to the degree that we are modern – we believe in nothing. This is not to say, I should add, that we do not believe in anything; I mean, rather, that we hold an unshakable, if often unconscious, faith in the nothing, or in nothingness as such. It is this in which we place our trust, upon which we venture our souls, and onto which we project the values by which we measure the meaningfulness of our lives.

Appearing to pull a page directly out of Hart, Lately opens his essay with the following observation: “If Silicon Valley worships anything, it worships nothing.” Let that sink in for a bit, as you’re likely reading this on Google’s web browser.

It’s doubtful whether Lately would agree with Hart’s end game, and surely the notoriously verbose theologian’s genealogy of voluntarism and postmodern nihilism can be called into question. The cult of immaterialism or the worship of nothing may not be ensconced in the will to power, as Hart sees it. But with Lately’s essay in mind, maybe it’s simply the case that the worship of nothing has a more objective abode than the vacuous human will. Maybe the shrine of the nothing is located among the prime real estate holdings of San Jose, Palo Alto, Sunnyvale, Cupertino, Los Gatos, and Menlo Park.

Dore

Whatever the case may be, Lately and Hart both agree that the marketing or worship of nothingness has severe material consequences. States Lately,

Like so much Silicon Valley newspeak, the myth of the immaterial is actually a cult of the very, very material… a single Google search (among the billions executed every day) releases half the carbon of a boiling kettle; the company as a whole produces as much CO2 as Laos. Beware the calming ease of the click…

The digital economy uses 10 percent of the world’s total electricity generation, while data centers alone have overtaken aviation as a source of global CO2 emissions (a single data center is thought to guzzle as much electricityas a medium sized American town). Just as Silicon Valley isn’t really in the business of silicon, there’s nothing white-and-fluffy about the Cloud, which is mostly powered by coal.

Polanyi

Throughout The Great Transformation, Karl Polanyi insists on the “reality of society,” and how economic liberalism systematically operates to undermine this reality. In the final chapter of his great work, Polanyi observes,

No society is possible in which power and compulsion are absent, nor a world in which force has no function. It was an illusion to assume a society shaped by man’s will and wish alone. Yet this was the result of a market view of society which equated economics with contractual relationships, and contractual relations with freedom. The radical illusion was fostered that there is nothing in human society that is not derived from the volition of individuals and that could not, therefore, be removed again by their volition. Vision was was limited by the market which ‘fragmented’ life into the producers’ sector that ended when his product reached the market. The one derived his income ‘freely’ from the market, the other spent it ‘freely’ there. Society as a whole remained invisible” (266).

Polanyi develops two interesting ideas here. First, he rejects the notion that society is nothing more than the sum of its parts. Not only is this a “radical illusion,” it is a “stark utopia,” a dangerous invention of nineteenth-century society. Second, by way of Marx’s analysis of the commodity fetish, Polanyi exposes the nominalistic fallacy at the heart of economic liberalism.

Polanyi was no metaphysician, but the fact that he regarded Marx as an invaluable resource for expressing philosophical – if not sacramental – realism, is something worth considering.

“Capital” and “Labour” confront each other independent of the will of individual capitalists and laborers… Again and again it is the case that despite available machinery and natural resources, employable work forces and pressing, unsatisfied needs the production apparatus stands still as if lamed and no earthly power would be able to set it once again in motion. Not human will, but prices decide which direction labour must go. Not human will, but interest rates command capital… Capitalists, like laborers, like people in general appear as a mere accessory on the business stage.

-Karl Polanyi, “Über die Freiheit”

Every form of socialism is based on the hope of mankind to attain to a form of social being in which people could normally in their every day existence actualize their responsibilities to their fellows because they would know how their commissions and omissions affect them, and they would be able to act accordingly… Life in society is not free. We influence, burden, harm, and disturb the lives of our fellows whether we will it or not. We do it by inactivity, as by activity… We must abide by the truth that we humans are condemned to live upon the freedom of our fellows, that we are condemned to live upon the work and toil, upon the health and life, of others…

But with the help of our faith we must make life out of these facts as faith builds life out of death.

Karl Polanyi, “Letter to a friend,” 1929

snowplough

Forbes contributor Tim Worstall is always a joy to read. Despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, Worstall’s columns offer steady defense after steady defense of the free market system – he’s even smarter than Pope Francis. It is, of course, his job – or shtick – to defend the failing system. And to his credit, I’m amazed at how quickly one can get sucked into his vortex of moral platitudes.

One of his latest rhetorical tactics is to argue that the market is always right, even when it isn’t. According to Worstall, the free market is always best, even when it requires government intervention, because, hey, no system is perfect. Typically, market liberals don’t know what to do with things like patents, limited liability laws, freeways; that is, all the stuff that is a precondition for the market’s existence. Worstall, however, brilliantly sidesteps this issue, writing:

As we all know there’s enough people out there who tell us that markets don’t work very well, free markets especially don’t work all that well and so, well, we should all be dragooned into doing whatever it is that these people have planned for us. One answer to this is simply to start shouting that free markets do to work so there. A slightly more sophisticated approach would be to agree that yes, markets (whether free or freeish) sometimes they don’t work well. But that markets don’t work well, or even at all, in one or another set of circumstances is not actually proof either that they won’t work well elsewhere or that they’re not working elsewhere. For example, the observation that a monopolised market is not working could well be true but that isn’t proof that non-monopolised markets don’t work.

In other words, the free market is working, it just experiences bumps in the road from time to time. It’s not so much that there is evidence to the contrary, it’s just that there are aberrations, or a lack of will to see the free market through. Worstall blithely concedes, writing, “ free markets aren’t perfect. Yes, we know that, the very existence of the idea of IP is proof of that. The public goods problems of creation and innovation are such that too little will be produced in an entirely free market environment. Therefore we intervene in markets to make them better.”

Several years ago, Karl Polanyi spotted this common tendency among market liberals in The Great Transformation. Their first step is to claim that markets and governments are two separate entities, whereby the latter is often forced to intervene into the autonomous domain of the former (would that it were not so!). When government intervention is required, as with patents for example, market liberals will insist that the source of the problem is “the incomplete application” of the market’s principles. This, writes Polanyi,

is the last remaining argument of economic liberalism today. Its apologists are repeating in endless variations that but for the policies advocated by its critics, liberalism would have delivered the goods; that not the competitive system and the self-regulating market, but the interference with that system and interventions with that market are responsible for our ills. And this argument does not find support in innumerable recent infringements of economic freedom only, but also in the indubitable fact that the movement to spread the system of self-regulating markets was met in the second half of the nineteenth century by a persistent countermove obstructing the free working of such an economy (149-150).

What Worstall and his ilk fail to see is that markets and governments are not two distinct entities in competition with each other. “Laissez-faire was planned,” as Polanyi famously stated. The genesis of the so-called free market system is this: “the road to the free market was opened and kept open by an enormous increase in continuous, centrally organized and controlled interventionism” (146ff.).

The transformation of the capitalist order requires a new calculus of the value of work, the value of human needs and the value of nature; basic human needs of security, affection, respect and protection have no place in formal economics. Economic decisions have to be made. But the value system must be one that accords with the realities of real people living in real societies, and a very real dependence on the natural environment and its very real limitations. Economics has to return to some very basic questions of use value and exchange value. We have to take into account the real value of human effort and work, and that is very different from its market value. We have to protect nature and our social and cultural heritage. People do not like to be valued and respected only for the income which they can earn and to be totally disrespected if they are not able to earn income for whatever reason.

-Kari Polanyi Levitt, “Development and Regionalism: Karl Polanyi’s Ideas and the Contemporary World System Transformation.”

Harmony

In a recent article from The American Prospect, Robert Knutter seeks to vindicate “the 20th century’s most prophetic critic of capitalism.”

The figure in question, however, is not as one would expect, Karl Marx. Although less famous, the other Karl – Karl Polayni – has proved to be the more insightful critic of capitalism.

As Knutter observes, the world today looks just as Marx had predicted:

The middle class is beleaguered. A global reserve army of the unemployed batters wages and marginalizes labor’s political power. Even elite professions are becoming proletarianized. Ideologically, the view that markets are good and states are bad is close to hegemonic. With finance still supreme despite the 2008 collapse, it is no longer risible to use “capital” as a collective noun. The two leading treasury secretaries during the run-up to the 2008 financial crash, Democrat Robert Rubin and Republican Henry Paulson, were both former CEOs of Goldman Sachs. If the state is not quite the executive committee of the ruling class, it is doing a pretty fair imitation.

Knutter continues,

Yet Marx, for all of his stubbornly apt insights about capitalism, is an unreliable guide to its remediation. Polanyi, with the benefit of nearly a century’s worth more evidence, has a surer sense of how markets interact with society. More humanist than materialist, Polanyi did not believe in iron laws. His hope was that democratic leaders might learn from history and not repeat the calamitous mistakes of the 19th and early 20th centuries. Polanyi lived long enough to see his wish fulfilled for a few decades. In hindsight, however, the brief period between the book’s publication and Polanyi’s demise is looking like a respite in the socially destructive tendencies of rampant markets. In seeking to understand the dynamics of our own time, we can do no better than to revisit Polanyi.

Knutter goes on to note that Polayni was drawn to the “temperate Socialism” of Robert Owen, Richard Tawney, and G.D.H. Cole. And it’s here, with Polayni’s observations on Owen, where we can see firsthand his edge over Marx.

As Polayni writes in The Great Transformation, Owen – unlike Marx – was the first to think outside the logic of liberalism. Owen alone understood “the reality of society” (133). And contrary Ricardo, Malthus and Marx, it was Owen who,

grasped the fact that what appeared primarily as an economic problem was essentially a social one. In economic terms the worker was certainly exploited: he did not get in exchange that which was his due. But important though this was, it was far from all. In spite of exploitation, he might have been financially better off than before. But a principle quite unfavorable to individual and general happiness was wreaking havoc with his social environment, his neighborhood, his standing in the community, his craft; in a word, with those relationships to nature and man in which his economic existence was formally embedded (134-135).

In light of the above passage, it is Polayni who comes across as the radical. By contrast, Marxian economics appears “temperate;” or at least as Polayni would have described the matter, as still too closely aligned with economic liberalism.

algo

From Ian Bogost’s, “The Cathedral of Computation”:

Here’s an exercise: The next time you see someone talking about algorithms, replace the term with “God” and ask yourself if the sense changes any. Our supposedly algorithmic culture is not a material phenomenon so much as a devotional one, a supplication made to the computers we have allowed to replace gods in our minds, even as we simultaneously claim that science has made us impervious to religion.

It’s part of a larger trend. The scientific revolution was meant to challenge tradition and faith, particularly a faith in religious superstition. But today, Enlightenment ideas like reason and science are beginning to flip into their opposites. Science and technology have become so pervasive and distorted, they have turned into a new type of theology.

Twain

In The Realm of Lesser Evil, Jean-Claude Michéa highlights the dangers of the oft-neglected topic of maternal control. In Michéa’s eyes, today’s left remains preoccupied in waging a war against patriarchal forms of domination, yet forgets the fact that capitalist exploitation also relies on non-patriarchal forms of oppression or disciplinary order. Patriarchal control, as Michéa explains, is always “frontal;” the masses know very well who their masters are and so they get in line. Maternal control, by contrast, exercises control over a subject ‘for their own good,’ with the result that “such subjects are almost inevitably led to blame themselves for their own ingratitude and moral shabbiness” (124). The result is a far more insidious form of social control, one that is often internalized by subjects.

Michéa then goes on to drive this point home, demonstrating that the market, rather than the state, is today’s “big brother:”

In a liberal society, the invisible hand of the Market is by definition always harder to perceive than the visible hand of the State, even though the power it exercises over the lives of individuals is far more developed. No particular intellectual agility is required to note the existence of permanent police controls, which is thus quite within the capacity of a person of the left. But an infinitely more complicated operation is needed to recognize the power that Google exercises over modern individuals… It is hard to imagine the modern left and far-left (always ready to wax indignant at the slightest police check in a banlieue station) one day calling on the popular classes to rebel against this kind of control (136-7).

sola fide

From Christopher Lasch’s The Revolt of the Elites and the Betrayal of Democracy:

In the commentary on the modern spiritual predicament, religion is consistently treated as a source of intellectual and emotional security, not as a challenge to complacency and pride. Its ethical teachings are misconstrued as a body of simple commandments leaving no room for ambiguity or doubt. Recall Jung’s description of medieval Christians as “children of God [who] knew exactly what they should do and how they should conduct themselves…

What has to be questioned here is the assumption that religion ever provided a set of comprehensive and unambiguous answers to ethical questions, answers completely resistant to skepticism, or that it forestalled speculation about the meaning and purpose of life, or that religious people in the past were unacquainted with existential despair. The famous collection of songs written by medieval students preparing for the priesthood Carmina Burana would be enough in itself to dispel this notion; these disturbing compositions give voice to an age-old suspicion that the universe is ruled by Fortune, not by Providence, that life has no higher purpose at al, and that the better part of moral wisdom is to enjoy it while you can (242-243).

For the most part, Lasch’s assessment is spot on. Yet note how Lasch appeals to medieval Christianity in order to make his argument convincing. In so doing, he conspicuously bypasses the modern Protestant tradition – that which gave birth to religion as a well spring of security, surety and fideism. The “misconstrued” ethical teachings, rightly deplored by Lasch above, unfortunately have less to do with modern secularists like Jung or Wilde, and more to do with a contingent form of bad theology. As John Milbank argues in Theology and Social Theory (published around the time of Lasch’s book), secularism was not birthed ex nihilio; rather, it was a certain form of early modern theology that birthed secularism.

Archives

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 56 other followers