"The Christian must discover in contemplation, and in the giving of his life, those symbolic actions which will ignite the people's faith to resist injustice with their whole lives, lives coming together as a united force of truth and thus releasing the liberating power of the God within them." - James Douglass, Contemplation and Resistance.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Smart Power: the Obama Way

There is a pattern in Obama's behavior. First, he makes a strong rhetorical flourish that apparently contains a ringing endorsement of liberal policy. However, on close examination, it is found to contain subtle hedging, a slight obscuring of the issue inserted to provide cover for later. This is usually followed by a lengthy phase in which right wing forces accuse him of "socialism" in various verbal disguises or openly. Rather than countering these forces with a strong and principled defense, he "reaches out" to the other side in a way that allows them to provide the default framing of the issue. It is here that he maneuvers most skillfully, but emphatically not for the liberal position he apparently endorsed at the beginning. Expect no "simple, pithy formulas" here.

The current frame of the debate is that the health insurance industry is an unchangeable fact of nature, which may need a tweak here and there, but is fundamentally inalterable. Once that's conceded, the public option has already been implicitly removed from consideration. Instead of choosing to fight against the right-wing onslaught, by, for instance, using those who staffed his campaign to pack town hall meetings, he uses the noise provided by the right to make an ascending series of concessions until he arrives at the place he intended to be in the first place. The basic intent is to make a tweak or two to the current system so that it can more efficiently extract profit from patients. Once the battle has been lost, he will make "the moral case for reform." In this way he covers the final retreat by using his liberal credentials.

But notice how he has built up his political credit with both the right and left. To the left, he provides rhetorical concessions. To the right he provides the substance of what they want but rebranded to make it more palatable. For instance, the proposed non-profit co-ops, which act as a flimsy nightgown to cover the real deed. Taxpayer money used to subsidize the health care plan will go straight towards health care company profits, while they provide the same shoddy care as before. Thereby, he maintains his true power base. His role is to provide marketable justifications for maintaining the current relationships of economic and political power. In that art, he is a master.

The Fetishism of Commodities

The best way to understand this idea and its power is by considering a product such as a Nike tennis shoe. In some societies, teenagers have killed for a Nike. No one dies for not having a Nike, but having one fills a psychological need so powerful that it can sweep away moral inhibitions, even those regarding human life. There seems to be a mysterious and infinite being behind this commodity which promises profound personal fulfillment. Nike is not a tennis shoe, but a life model, as the publicity agent puts it.

So what is this mysterious being who can command human sacrifice? A fetish is an inanimate object such as a tree, a stone, a statue etc. that has been given human properties. It has become infused with a supernatural personality and often commands worship and sacrifice. A commodity is a manufactured object such as a tennis shoe, but its distinguishing characteristic is that it is produced for the purpose of getting something else, profit, rather than fulfilling a real human need, though it may do that as well.

Now when the teenager seeks for a Nike, he is not actually seeking an efficient and comfortable shoe, he is seeking a relationship with a power outside himself. He knows that in order to have a chance of being accepted by the right gang, the tennis shoe is the condition of possibility. But the tennis shoe would not be the passport to acceptance unless it had an aura about it that spelled success, achievement, a life model. Those who don't attain to this aura have failed in some essential and mysterious way.

Hopefully, I've managed to communicate an idea that lies at the heart of our economic system and has profound religious overtones. Such is the fascination that keeps the tremendous talents that we have potentially, the talent to create harmonious ecologies, to bring out the human potentialities of technology, to create a world centered on the fulfillment of human need locked tightly behind the walls of fantasy. Here we rot in the capitalist Disneyland while the life that sustains withers and dies in the onslaught unleashed by our lack of responsibility and infinite appetite for self-indulgence.

Friday, August 14, 2009

The Illusion that Power can Produce What the Heart Desires

The illusion that prevents the acceptance of liberation theology is that spirituality involves turning away from this world to another world where we will one day make our home. God has already given us our home. It surrounds us on all sides. In the conventional view of Christianity the things of this world are of little value or moment because they are destined shortly to be transcended by altogether different reality in which our eternal destiny will be realized. Therefore, good spiritual practice means to regard material reality lightly, as a symbol of the spiritual realities where we will one day find our true home.

But the question liberation theology asks is: "Are there actually two realities, one spiritual and the other material, between which we must conduct a careful balancing act?" Or is there perhaps a single reality within which the totality of our destiny must be played out? The theology which labels itself "liberationist" and which I believe forms the basis of a new reformation of the Christian faith, answers that there is a single reality which is spiritual and material at the same time.

What has worked most powerfully against the acceptance of liberation theology by today's Christians is one of the most sophisticated systems of manufactured consent ever created. This manufactured consent, well-analyzed by Noam Chomsky among others, consists of a corporate-controlled media that carefully frames every issue to support corporate interests. It creates a system of mutually reinforcing messages that define the frameworks within which all issues can be debated. It inculcates the illusion of freedom of debate in order to more effectively constrain the terms of the debate. Points of view such as liberation theology are mysteriously excluded from the dialogue.

Of course, recent trends in Christian theology have also served to exclude anti-capitalist viewpoints. But these trends did not arise in an economic and political vacuum. So dangerous is the viewpoint of liberation theology to the dominant classes in the U.S. that its language has been made incomprehensible to those whose minds have been formed by neoliberal ideology. In fact, the dominant religion in the U.S. is the fetishism of commodities, a form of idolatry that most Christian communities have embraced and branded with a set of Christian themes.

But is not the very purpose of religion to tear us away from the things of this world so that we can rest in the love of God? It depends on what we mean by "love of God". "The spirit of Yahweh is the spirit of interhuman justice-definitive, total justice. Luke describes such justice in this way: "The whole group of believers had one heart and one soul, and no one called his own anything that he had; rather they held everything in common' (Acts 4:32)." (Miranda, Marx and the Bible). Note that love of God is described in economic terms - shared ownership, the end of individual possession, and sharing of talents are the key elements which express the disciples' living out of the resurrection of Jesus, as is made explicit in the following verse, "With great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all." (Acts 4:33). "For faith in the resurrection of Jesus reveals that salvation stands not for accumulation of wealth, but for the formation of human communities where all people are acknowledged, irrespective of wealth and other social characteristics." Jung Mo Sung, "Desire, Market, and Religion", p. 25.

The love of God and living out the resurrection by the Apostles was located particularly in the sharing of material possessions, which was regarded as a sign of the Kingdom of God. In their eyes, the life of God was expressed in the community of goods, the unity of individual and community that formed the basic social unit of the kingdom. They never considered the abandonment of the material world as a requirement of the kingdom of God, which would forever be found in this world of inextricably intermeshed spiritual and material reality.

Saturday, August 08, 2009

Property for People, Not for Profit

The starting point of a Christian political system originates from the Fathers of the Church such as St. John Chrysostom: "There is something terrible about greed, any guilty of it shall be be expelled from the Church." The central principle of Christian communism can be described as follows: "Enjoying goods alone means losing them, harming both the social whole and oneself. The crucial idea here is that of benefit. Since everything belongs to God we are only beneficiaries of existing goods, and there can be no private property in the strict legal sense of exclusive rights, this right being limited, if not repealed, by the normative obligation to be useful: 'Everything belongs to God...do you not know that we will be called to account if we make poor use of it?" - Clement of Alexandria.

This principle means that a political system in which property rights trump all other values is anti-Christian at its root. Traditional Christianity has always argued that property rights are relative values and should be subordinated to spiritual values. In other words, an economic system based on the profit motive cannot be made to conform to Christian principles because it is based on greed from the root. Current economic theory further assumes that the sum of personal greed-based activity will result in the greater good of the whole, which is blatantly contradicted by the facts of our world, not to mention being the mirror opposite of Christian morality.

From the perspective of traditional ethics, "...when the usefulness of the goods produced and consumed no longer drives economic activities, but exchange value and limitless accumulation through money mechanisms, the property-owning individual falls prey to the illusion of boundless life - and the community is destroyed." Hinkelammert, "Another World is Possible". Therefore the economic and political system I would advocate would involve a rational and collective planning process for production that would focus on human need. It would regard the excessive accumulation of property by individuals or small groups as a crime against the good of the whole. It would be a world in which useful goods were distributed to all according to their need and to which each would contribute according to their talents. Such an economic practice would promote the values of sharing over competition, in accordance with Jesus' teachings in the Sermon on the Mount.

According to Christian teaching, human beings have the potential for both deep moral degradation and high spiritual attainment. Therefore a Christian economics is not one that regards all behaviors which might lead to growing profit margins as equally desirable. Some behaviors, such as compassion, sharing, care for the poor, diligence, concern for quality, craftsmanship, and so on should be encouraged, while others such as uncontrolled lust, greed, foolish self-indulgence, wastefulness, shoddy workmanship, escapism, desire for power over others, destructiveness and others, are to be discouraged by the economic system, as well as every other social mechanism. In an economic system which makes profit the supreme value, Christian values must necessarily be ignored and degraded.

So how can we envision an economic system that promotes the teachings of Jesus? The purpose of economics, according to St. Thomas Aquinas, is to provide a field within which we can strive for greater and greater heights of moral virtue. That perfection cannot be served by endless arrays of wasteful and spiritually harmful commodities which encourage foolish self-indulgence and lack of compassion for our brothers and sister who have less. More radically, a production system that doesn't consider the ecological impact of the goods that it produces and fails to meet human needs is corrupt in its root and must be abolished for the sake of human and natural life. That is the true "pro-life" position that Jesus calls us to.

Economics must promote the deepening of our humanity, not the proliferation of useless and destructive "needs." The economic picture which currently reigns is the mirror opposite of one that would promote the proliferation of higher needs, the need to love, the need for truth, the need for honor, and all that these needs imply about the true direction of human evolution. The proliferation of unnecessary material goods, especially considering the wars and theft that they necessarily entail, is a mark of shame on the human race, one that we will be long cleansing ourselves of.

Has the human race deteriorated to the point that it is no longer capable of imagining a world in which the products of spiritual achievement can be measured by other standards than their profit potential? What tyrant constrains us so fiercely that we can't think outside of the box of the commodity? The lure of endless quantity leads us to the destruction of ourselves and our planet.

In the words of John Bellamy Foster: "The goal must be the creation of sustainable communities geared to the development of human needs and powers, removed from the all-consuming drive to accumulate wealth." - John Bellamy Foster, "The Ecological Revolution", 2009

If Christianity doesn't mean this, then it has become one of the idolatrous powers which is destroying human life on this planet and has lost whatever tether it may once have had to the teachings of Jesus Christ.

Sunday, August 02, 2009

What is to be Done? Part 1

The following is the first part of an essay which seeks to probe the empire for weaknesses arising from the economic crisis in order to identify a way forward for leftists. In the first part, I sketch out the current situation.

The current economic “crisis” is a crisis only for the poor and the middle class, which is scheduled for extinction. This “crisis” represents the consolidation of the economic power of the wealthy by a vast transfer of wealth from public to private hands. But this massive grab of economic power could end by destroying the class that believes itself to be making its domination permanent, and therein lies the opportunity to be explored later in this essay.

The most vocal portions of the “left” in the United States fail to see the holistic nature of the globalist strategy of capital. The anti-war movement seems to believe that one man, Barack Obama, can make a decision that will lead to the withdrawal of troops from the Middle East. The reason this is not possible is because the conquest of major portions of the Middle East is key to the control of Central Asian energy supplies, which is itself part of a much larger plan for global market control. Obama has fully accepted this plan or he would not be President today. His job is both to pursue the strategy and to damp down criticism, a job he has been doing quite effectively. Obama, far from representing a reversal of the drive toward neocolonialism, has refined but also intensified that strategy.

The truth that is so difficult to face is that the empire, by its nature, demands total control. We name this entity as “empire” precisely for that reason. The driving engine of its current moves in the Middle East is not simply to obtain oil. No doubt, the U.S. will obtain the oil, but it could have done this by many other means than military conquest.

The military element serves several purposes. In order to successfully camouflage these moves toward domination, enemies must be manufactured. It is now becoming clear that one of the primary purposes of the Iraq occupation was to give the intelligence agencies a chance to manufacture enemies in order to justify our conquest of the Middle East. Massive random round ups, accompanied by lengthy incarceration and torture, have turned a generation of Iraqis against the U.S. The same process is now being pursued in Afghanistan and Pakistan, where drone attacks have displaced millions of Pakistanis. These attacks ensure a sufficient level of hatred for the U.S. that we will be able to justify military interventions for decades to come. There will be no withdrawal from Iraq.

The point is that their tactics cannot be understood in isolation or explained by simplistic short term gains. The ruling elite thinks in much larger terms and the left must match their globalized aims with a global understanding of its own. Note carefully that we are not making statements about the morality of individual members of that class, which vary widely. We are making statements about the logic of imperial control which always tends toward gaining control of all aspects of society in order to ensure an undistorted flow of property accumulation into the coffers at the center of power.

The role of the media in this strategy is to imbue the world population with a fatalistic acceptance of the inevitability of the current system. News shows are designed to trivialize the consequences of imperial control by framing such events as having no more significance than a pop star’s latest hair style. A serious message is interwoven between the trivialities, but the trivialities make the serious message of fear easier to ingest.

One of the major factors lying behind the weakness of current resistance movements is the rejection of totalizing ideologies by the academic mainstream, the post-modernist trend that finds its media reflection in the trivializing framing noted above. Clearly the ideology of empire is a totalizing ideology, a scientifically elaborated set of strategic initiatives centered on the accumulation of capital which regards the welfare of the majority as of no consequence to its calculations. Human beings are merely human capital to be used or disposed of as necessary for the maximization of accumulation. The resistance to this ideology must have a concept of the total system and its tactics must be a reflection of this understanding. The inability to make scientifically valid propositions that potentially form a system of ordered truths make resistance to the real global power impossible because it prevents the emergence of a unified front with broad agreement on principles. Perhaps this is the primary purpose of encouraging academic trends such as post-modernism, especially when they accord so well with neoliberal economics. Such movements dissolve the potential power of the resistance at its foundation. To face a totalizing class enemy with ideologies that are localized and identity-based is to disarm oneself by default.

So the beginning is to banish the illusion that the empire can gradually evolve into something less brutal, less intrinsically inhuman. Its fundamental nature is control which must spread from one node of human activity to the next until its steel-laced spider web forbids any chink of light.

Yet in creating this web of night the empire destroys the very engine of life that it depends on in order to survive. Human capital can be kept in peak operating condition only through the fuel of hope. Once hope is removed and we are told that the current world situation is the “end of history”, that reason and humanity have nothing further to offer than the endless asymptote of capital accumulation until the ruling elite disappear into a black hole of their own infinite wealth, then the motor that drives the whole machine starts to grind loudly. This is the despair and its companion cynicism that currently grips most of those who inhabit the outer circles of the neoliberal hell. And this is the basis of real hope.