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One of the best books of the year to come across my desk was Steve Fraser’s The Age of Acquiescence: The Life and Death of American Resistance to Organized Wealth and Power. Fraser argues that America is living through nothing less than a new gilded age. But unlike the first gilded age, an age characterized by mass uprisings, powerful unions, robber barons, Christian Socialists, and a whole host of vociferous groups and lively characters, our age, by contrast, is one of stark acquiescence.
This is not to say, simply, that we’ve become lazy. Rather, Fraser makes a case that we’ve lost the logic of resistance. The moneyed-class has become so formidable in our second gilded age, that we no longer possess the language of how to reinvigorate the common good in the face of concentrated private power. This includes the notable loss of religious language condemning the desire for riches and Mammon worship.
Fraser pulls no punches. The left, with its preoccupation of identity-politics at the expense of working class values, played right into the hands of the moneyed-elite. “The social liberalism of identity politics also set in motion a logic of fragmentation that could chisel away at the fragile solidarity of an earlier era,” writes Fraser (360). The rise of the individual – a product, by the way of the right – perpetuates the myth of achieving inner psychic freedom at the cost of social solidarity and the common good. The new Left has bought into this myth; hence the rise of the “creative class” and the gig economy, whereby liberals champion “flexible” schedules and employers. Thus so, “professionalism serves as a psychological wage,” writes Fraser, “compensating for economic deterioration” (335).
What really stands out in Fraser work is his profound grasp on the dignity of labor. With this, Fraser is perfectly in line with the late Christopher Lasch. In fact, Lasch’s greatest work, The True and Only Heaven, is footnoted throughout Fraser’s analysis; so much so that Lasch’s diagnosis forms the bedrock of Fraser’s main criticism: the ascendency of market society corresponds to the demise of dignified labor.
In order then to once again regain our cultural and economic foothold, the mass of people will have to regain the dignity of work. As Fraser writes,
Work itself had lost its cultural gravitas. What in part qualified the American Revolution as a legitimate overturning of an ancien regime was its political emancipation of labor. Until that time, work was considered a disqualifying disability for participating in public life. It entailed a degree of deference to patrons and a narrow-minded preoccupation with day-to-day affairs that undermined the possibility of disinterested public service. By opening up the possibility of democracy, the Revolution removed, in theory, that crippling impairment and erased an immemorial chasm between those who worked and those who didn’t need to, and by inference this bestowed honor on laboring mankind, a recognition that was to infuse American political culture for generations.
But in our new era, the nature of work, the abuse of work, exploitation at work, and all the prophecies and jeremiads, the condemnations and glorifications embedded in laboring humanity no longer occupied center stage in the theater of public life. The eclipse of the work ethic as a spiritual justification for labor may be liberating. But the spiritless work regimen left behind carries with it no higher justification. This disenchantment is also a disempowerment (363).
Astute readers will recognize the implicit theological currents operating here, including “laboring humanity”, references to the spirit, and of course, “disenchantment.” That Fraser relies so heavily upon religious or spiritual concepts to make his point should give us pause. Elsewhere, when criticising identity politics and personal “rights,” Fraser says,
Hibernating inside this “material girl” quest for more stuff and self-improvement is a sacramental quest for transcendence, reveries of what might be, a “transubstantiation of goods, using products and gear to create a magical realm in which all is harmony, happiness, and contentment” (305).
Fraser’s language here should sound familiar (at least for readers of this blog), as the “transubstantiation” observation is from Terry Eagleton.
The Age of Acquiescence give us much to think about. It seems fair to say that if we are serious about the reinvigoration of dignified productive labor, the Left is going to need to add some theological tools to its arsenal. Henry Demarest Lloyd once said that only a restoration of ancient truths, particularly, that the first will be last and the last will be first, can bring back “the republic in which all join their labor that the poorest may be fed, the weakest defended… Not until then can the forces be reversed which generate those obnoxious persons – our fittest” (Quoted in Fraser, 162).
From the great heterodox economist and Catholic Social thinker, E.F. Schumacher:
Above anything else there is a need for a proper philosophy of work which understands work not as that which it has indeed become, an inhuman chore as soon as possible to be abolished by automation, but as something “decreed by Providence for the good of man’s body and soul” [Pixus XI]. Next to the family, it is work and the relationships established by work that are the true foundations of society. If the foundations are unsound, how could society be sound? And if society is sick, how could it fail to be a danger to peace?
Small is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered, 38.
Do we best organize society by changing structures or by changing individuals? These two poles dominate today’s political climate, yet rarely is the dichotomy questioned, either by the Left or Right. As the 2016 Presidential election season continues to ramp up in the United States, we’re likely to see this either/or become more acute.
In order to get past this political stalemate, Luke Bretherton, in Resurrecting Democracy: Faith, Citizenship, and the Politics of a Common Life, draws on the wisdom of Martin Buber. As the great Jewish philosopher writes,
Two views concerning the way stand irrevocably opposed to each other. The demands that one begin by changing the “relations” [structures of production or power], for only out of their being different can a change of men and their relationships to one another arise. The other explains that the new orderings and institutions in the place of the old will not change one particle of life so long as they are carried by unchanged persons. This alternative is false. One must begin at both ends at once; otherwise nothing can succeed. What new relations really are, even in their operation, depends upon what kind of human existence is put into them; but how shall a new humanity persist on earth if it is not preserved and confirmed in new orderings? The world of man without the soul of it in addition is no human world; but also the soul of man without the world in addition is no human soul.
Buber then discuss the need for “a third:”
At both ends at once therefore – but that it may avail, a third is needed that cannot be among us without the breath from another sphere: spirit… To me, it is as if two choruses stride about the arena there, the chorus that calls for the orderings and the chorus that calls for the men; their call will not reach its goal until they being to sing in one: Veni creator spiritus.” (Bretherton, 208-209).
Veni creator spiritus, indeed.
We talk a lot about “human rights” these days, but rarely do we seem to consider the meaning of what it is we’re saying.
“A large majority of the world’s inhabitants are not the subjects of human rights,” writes Boaventura de Sousa Santos, “they are rather the objects of human rights discourses.”
In an excerpt from his forthcoming book, Santos writes that the discourse of human rights is founded on bourgeois individualism that fits perfectly well with capitalist structures. But as Santos explains, human rights discourse is an illusion:
One of these illusions—the teleological illusion—consists in reading history backwards, beginning with the consensus that exists today concerning human rights and the unconditional good they entail, and reading past history as a linear path inexorably leading towards such a result. Related to the teleological illusion is the illusion of triumphalism, the notion that the victory of human rights is an unconditional human good. It takes for granted that all the other grammars of human dignity that have competed with that of human rights were inherently inferior in ethical and political terms. This Darwinian notion does not take into account a decisive feature of hegemonic western modernity, indeed its true historical genius; namely, the way it has managed to supplement the force of the ideas that serve its purposes with the military force that, supposedly at the service of the ideas, is actually served by them.
Santos’s critique is in line with contemporary theological critiques of rights discourse, including those of Rowan Williams, Charles Taylor and Alasdair MacIntyre. Santos’s main problem is not with the impetus for liberation, but that human rights discourse – as it currently stands in its Western imperial garb – is not liberating enough.
Christopher Lasch would have celebrated his eighty-second birthday today. Despite having passed away twenty years ago, it’s clear that his work still remains “an indispensable aid to bullshit detection” for both left and right orthodoxies, as The Baffler recently noted.
The problem with Conservatives is easy enough to pinpoint:
Conservatives assume that deregulation and a return to the free market will solve everything, promoting a revival of the work ethic and a resurgence of ‘traditional values.’ Not only do they provide an inadequate explanation of the destruction of those values but they unwittingly side with the social forces that have contributed to their destruction, for example in their advocacy of unlimited growth. The poverty of contemporary conservatism reveals itself most fully in this championship of economic growth the underlying premise of the consumer culture by products of which conservatives deplore [sic]. A vital conservatism would identify itself with the demand for limits not only on economic growth but on the conquest of space, the technological conquest of the environment, and the human ambition to acquire godlike powers over nature. A vital conservatism would see in the environmental movement the quintessential conservative cause, since environmentalism opposes reckless innovation and makes conservation the central order of business. Instead of taking environmentalism away from the left, however, conservatives condemn it as a counsel of doom.
The New Left suffers from its own share of cultural myopia:
Stale polemics, full of moral outrage and theoretical hot air, inadvertently show why the Left has no future. Unable to explain the persistence of religion, pro-family attitudes, and an ethic of personal accountability except as an expression of false consciousness—as the product of brainwashing or of an irrational attachment to “simple and easy answers” after “two decades of social upheaval”—the Left finds itself without a following. Since it refuses to take popular attitudes seriously, to “pander” to “the existing popular consciousness,” in Lillian Rubin’s curious and revealing phrase, it can hope to reform society only in the face of popular opposition or indifference.
Lasch recognizes that his rejection of both left and right ideologies (in favor of old-school radicalism or conservative socialism, it should be noted) puts him in awkward position:
Readers will find my position confusing only if they persist in thinking that any position not immediately assimilable to left-wing orthodoxy belongs automatically to the Right… “Which side are you on, boys?” When the sides were more clearly drawn, the question made some sense. It still makes sense if it means that people who profess a disinterested love of truth and justice ought to be skeptical, on principle, of the claims of wealth and power and predisposed to side with the underdog. But the Left long ago lost any vivid interest in underdogs. It is allergic to anything that looks like a lost cause. Such moral authority as the Left enjoyed in the past derived from its identification with the oppressed; but its appeal to intellectuals, unfortunately, has usually rested on its claim to stand on the side of history and progress. What added to the thrill of choosing sides was the certainty that in socialism one chose he winning side, the “cooperative commonwealth” lure to prevail in the long run. The only morally defensible choice, however, is the choice of mercy, charity, and forgiveness over the world’s principalities and powers, the choice of truth against ideology. To make that choice today means to reject Left and Right alike.
In The Realm of Lesser Evil, Jean-Claude Michea looks to revive the original socialist critique of liberalism in both its cultural or economic forms. For a person on the left, such as Michea, to attack economic liberalism is about par for the course; for a person on the left to attack cultural liberalism – that which rejects tradition, virtue, moral values, and “common decency” – is to be labeled “reactionary.” Michea’s work is of interest to “Sublunary Sublime” in that he echoes the ethos of the Christian Socialist tradition, beginning with F.D. Maurice.
According to Michea, cultural and economic forms of liberalism are governed by the same underlying logic, and the misguided attempt to disentangle the two only serves to reinforce the worst ravages of economic liberalism. The foundation of liberalism rests on a pessimistic anthropology – despite the best intentions of Smith or Hobbes – and the political desire to secure peace through the market. Government’s role is somewhat secondary, tasked to play the disinterested arbitrator, except that the market’s logic always triumphs over the state’s empty form. “Political liberalism always ends up finding its natural centre of gravity in economic liberalism,” writes Michea (32). This is because, as Michea goes on to argue, Law and Market are structurally and substantially identical (64 – 70). Michea delivers a bit of damning evidence here, quoting Milton Friedman, “who has described most precisely (or cynically) the real nature of this liberal tolerance, when he celebrates the Market as the magic mechanism enabling ‘millions of individuals to come together on a daily basis without any need to love one another, or even to speak to one another’” (54).
From the outset Michea recognizes that his argument will be a hard pill to swallow for many on the left, who typically like “to distinguish between a ‘good’ political and cultural liberalism and a ‘bad’ economic liberalism” (1). In truth, however, “the soulless world of contemporary capitalism is the only historical form in which this original liberal doctrine could be realized in practices. It is, in other words, actually existing liberalism” (2).
If there is no difference between good and bad liberalism, what then is to be done? For Michea, the task is then to revive the spirit of original socialism, as opposed to Marx, who is but “the direct heir of ‘English economic science’, i.e. of original liberalism” (41). As Anca Simitopol states about Michea’s work, “the rediscovery of the political philosophy of the first socialist thinkers is highly important because it represents the only way out of the all-embracing capitalism (italics mine).” Early socialism, according to Michea, was directly opposed to liberalism: at the heart of all early socialist manifestos is “the critique of egoism and the liberal atomization of society” (139). Standing at odds with liberalism, Michea wants “to anchor the fundamentals of socialists practices in basic human virtues”; that is, to revive the Orwellian sense of “common decency”: trust, generosity, working-on-oneself, and, most importantly perhaps, holding to a sense of limits as opposed to unending economic growth. Pace Marx, the reviving of virtuous socialistic practice is not reactionary. Orwellian socialism, as Michea clarifies, “is less the nostalgia for a vanished world than a determined opposition to the moral pessimism of the Moderns. It is the constant refusal to drown the ‘common people’ in the icy waters of egoistic calculation” of both liberalism and totalitarianism (113).
Although Michea presents a controversial thesis, he is absolutely right to point out that it is becoming more and more difficult to disentangle the ‘good’ and ‘bad’ forms of liberalism out from under the all-mighty market. What’s worse, it is quickly becoming the case that liberalism is no longer content to cast itself as the least bad option. As Michea writes, “the realm of lesser evil, as its shadow has stretched over the entire planet, seems set on taking over, one by one, all the features of its oldest enemy. It now wants to be adored as the best of worlds” (140).
Rich man and poor man stood there, looking at each other. And the poor man said, pale in the face: “If I would not be poor, you would not be rich.” Bertolt Brecht, quoted in Rieger, 197
In his introduction to Religion, Theology, and Class, Joerg Rieger discusses how liberal theological discourse has undervalued or ignored the issue of class division. Although progressive religious communities in the US have drawn appropriate attention to questions of gender, sexuality and ethnicity, the reality of class conflict has remained “underreflected.” Why is this?
Rieger claims that the issue has to do in part with progressive religion’s use of the language of inclusion, along with “celebrating diversity.” Class, by contrast, is inherently non-inclusive; it implies division, conflict, dualism, and taking sides. In contemporary religious and theological studies, influenced by poststructuralist and postcolonial discourse, a focus on binaries and dualisms is considered outdated – despite the fact that socio-economic binaries continue to grow.
As Rieger explains,
One of the biggest hurdles to understanding class is progressive religion’s concern for inclusion, which is theologically supported by portraying the divine as inclusive of all humanity. However, while inclusion is a common way to address matters of gender, race, ethnicity, and sexuality, it makes little sense when dealing with issues of class. If class is not a matter of God-given diversity or other natural differences between people but produced in a conflictual relationship, whereby the power and success of one class is built on the back of the other, “celebrating diversity” would be counterproductive. Celebrating diversity in terms of class would make things worse by endorsing differences that are produced and conflictual, and which benefit some more than others (11).
As Rieger makes clear, even the inclusive God has limits.
What’s more, the plea for inclusion tends to surface among conservatives when the issue concerns economics. For a concrete example, one need only look at a recent David Brooks column. Brooks takes it upon himself to respond to The Piketty Phenomenon, arguing that the best way to reduce inequality (rather than class division) is to lift the bottom rather than punish the top through taxation. We should, as Brooks argues, “counter angry progressivism with unifying uplift” and take up the banner of inclusivity – “we’re all in this together.” For the proponents of inclusively – wither liberal religion or defenders of capitalism – talk of class division is a real downer.
According to several news outlets, yesterday marked a historic day for Seattle. Labor leaders, business leaders and city officials reached a deal to raise the city’s minimum wage to $15 per hour, as announced by Mayor Ed Murray.
In speaking about yesterday’s decision, Murray, regarded as a “social gospel Catholic,” quoted Pope Francis on social justice and income inequality.
Although the measure’s outcome is uncertain, it still is very interesting to note that Pope Francis’s rejection of market ideology has found some real world traction.
Some people continue to defend trickle-down theories which assume that economic growth, encouraged by a free market, will inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice and inclusiveness in the world. This opinion, which has never been confirmed by the facts, expresses a crude and naïve trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power and in the sacralized workings of the prevailing economic system. Meanwhile, the excluded are still waiting. To sustain a lifestyle which excludes others, or to sustain enthusiasm for that selfish ideal, a globalization of indifference has developed. Almost without being aware of it, we end up being incapable of feeling compassion at the outcry of the poor, weeping for other people’s pain, and feeling a need to help them, as though all this were someone else’s responsibility and not our own. The culture of prosperity deadens us; we are thrilled if the market offers us something new to purchase; and in the meantime all those lives stunted for lack of opportunity seem a mere spectacle; they fail to move us (Evangelii Gaudium).