"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, December 05, 2010

The Earth and Its Fullness are the Lord's

Aurelius Augustinus is widely considered the most substantial Christian thinker of the early
Church and many, both Catholic and Protestant, consider him the greatest Christian theologian
of all time. So it is significant that so little attention has been given to his economic philosophy
while his thoughts on war and other political topics have been so exhaustively examined.
As with so much of Augustine’s thought, it is the inner dimension, its effect on the soul, of
the human reality under consideration which draws his most intense scrutiny. Augustine’s
philosophy of property centered on justice, rather than the legal conception of absolute
ownership which is regarded in our time as an immutable institution. Augustine, along with most
other early Christian thinkers, regarded private property as justified only by the fulfillment of its
moral purpose - the sharing of the goods of the earth with all.

For Augustine, the root of morality is found in the love of God. God is to be loved above all other
realities, both earthly and spiritual. For Augustine, only the perfect good can be enjoyed for its
own sake. Therefore, true enjoyment is found only in God. Other realities are to be used as
pathways which bring us closer to God. Earthly realities find their fulfillment only by leading us to
God. All lower values point toward the highest value - our hearts are ever restless until they rest
in him.

Since property is an earthy reality that tends to possess its possessors, tempting them to
enjoy it as if it were an absolute value, how should Christians use it? Morality, not the law of
the Empire, is the true criteria of ownership, “Property is wrongly possessed by evil persons;
while good persons who love it least have the best right to it” and later, “Whence does anyone
possess what he or she has? Is it not from human law? For by divine law, the earth and its
fullness are the Lord’s (cf. Psalm 23:1); the poor and the rich God has made from one mud and
the poor and the rich he sustains on one earth. Nevertheless, by human law, one says, ‘This
estate is mine, this house is mine, this servant is mine.’ This is by human law therefore - by the
law of the Emperors.” (Avila, Charles, Ownership: Early Christian Teaching, Orbis Books: 1983,
p. 111). Property is the gift of God best owned by those who use it as a means to reach him
who gave it. The emperor’s law grants absolute ownership without regard to how the possessor
uses his or her property, but in God’s eyes right use is the criteria of just ownership.

For Augustine, private ownership was an expression of sin when it was not used to fulfill God’s
plan for the just distribution of the world’s resources. This sin was a failure to recognize that all
being participates in God, the source of being. Private property in the Roman (and American)
sense of absolute ownership seeks a fraudulent autonomy from the rest of creation. As William
Cavanaugh put it, “To be left to our own devices, cut off from God, is to be lost in sin, which is
the negation of being.” (Cavanaugh, William T., Being Consumed, Eerdmans: 2008, p. 8). Yet
this autonomy is exactly what Milton Friedman and other neoliberals praise as “freedom” as in
the famous phrase, “Free to Choose.” To be encased in “one’s own choice” is to be the slave of
sin. Such “freedom” is slavery to one’s own will which has not yet been healed by God’s power.

The beginning of healing is the recognition of God’s sovereignty: “...freedom of choice is not
made void but established by grace, since grace heals the will whereby righteousness may
freely be loved.” - Augustine, The Spirit and the Letter. “Humans need a community of virtue in
which to learn to desire rightly.” (Cavanaugh, p. 9).

The Creator has not made human beings a sequence of autonomous units each pursuing its
own atomistic interests utterly divorced from all the others. Such fantasies are the result of sin.
When this sin is healed, we begin to see in each other the faces of single human family, made
from the same mud and sustained by God’s love on one planet. Augustine’s view of property
is a scandal to those who pride themselves on what they own: “Both the person to whom a
wealthy inheritance has fallen, and the one who has happened on impoverished conditions,
have the same fundamental claim to the goods of earth, which neither of them originally
possessed. For both, the most basic rule to consider in ownership is what one really needs. If
one therefore keeps more than what is sufficient, ethically speaking one is really keeping others’
property, because these others, by virtue of their need, have a fundamentally greater right to
those material goods.” (Avila, p. 114) Right ownership is a function of need rather than the laws
of the Empire.

In addition, property flows to those who know how to use it rightly. “Gold and silver therefore
belong to those who know how to use gold and silver. For even among human beings
themselves, each must be said to possess something [only] when he or she uses it well. For
what a person does not treat justly, that person does not possess rightly. If one should call
one’s own what one does not possess rightly, this will not be the voice of a just possessor.”
(Augustine, Sermo L, 1, PL 38:326) True ownership is granted only to the one who uses
property justly - otherwise one is a thief and one’s property can be justly expropriated by those
who will use it rightly. Those who abuse their property and by extension degrade the ecological
integrity of God’s earth, “...have forfeited their participation in God’s true ownership” (Avila, p.

A prime example of such forfeiture can be found in BP’s abuse of its undersea property in
the Gulf of Mexico, Such behavior, though sanctioned by law, involves a direct violation of
Augustine’s principles of right ownership. This violation can only be healed by a sincere effort to
restore the ecological system which has been so critically damaged. Otherwise, if BP’s concern
for profit prevails over the obligation to set right what has been destroyed, world citizens have
the right and obligation to expropriate the property which has been so abused for the sake of
profit. God’s justice demands it.

In Augustine’s view, property must never abuse the common wealth which God has granted
as a gift to all people. Otherwise, “Instead of ownership being used to foster community, it
becomes a means to destroy human solidarity. In the Roman law concept of private property,
then, a means has become an end. It has ceased to be relative and inclusive, and has become
absolute and exclusive” (Avila, p. 118). The scandal which Augustine presents to modern
Americans is that there is a higher law that sanctions private property only when it is a means to

greater human solidarity, not when it is treated as an absolute right walling people off from each
other. The corporate person also cannot do with its property whatever garners the greatest profit
regardless of the human and natural consequences, but must follow God’s law - “because each
of us is a member of the one great human family.” (Avila, p. 118).

The law of the New Jerusalem does not acknowledge “mine” and “not mine”, but
only “ours.” “Those who wish to make room for the Lord must find pleasure not in private, but
in common property...Redouble your charity. For, on account of the things which each one
of us possesses singly, wars exist, hatreds, discords, strifes among human beings, tumults,
dissensions, scandals, sins, injustices, and murders. On what account? On account of these
things which each of us possesses singly. Do we fight over the things we possess in common?
We inhale this air in common with others, we all see the sun in common. Blessed therefore are
those who make room for the Lord, so as not to take pleasure in private property.” (Augustine,
Enarratio in Psalmum CXXXI, 5, PL 37:1718). As we saw in my previous article "The Meaning
of 'Mine' and 'Not Mine' in Early Christianity" the Church fathers were not simply making a
critique of “greed” the way many churches do today. We live in a society so fundamentally anti-
Christian that the subjective attitude of greed is openly celebrated and must be countered by the
remaining bastions of moral sanity. But the Church fathers’ critique was much deeper than that.
They had the courage to openly challenge one of the most powerful institutions of their time, the
law sanctioning absolute ownership, rejecting it as undesirable and dangerous. As Charles Avila
put it, “In [Augustine’s] view, private property is the chief enemy of peace.” (Avila, p. 121).

As one would expect from Augustine, his interest centers on the sinful attitudes which private
property engenders. It does not merely isolate us from our fellow creatures, but bloats our sense
of self, encasing us in prideful fantasies. These fantasies are the result of the tyranny of our own
wills which fail to acknowledge membership in the family God wishes to create among us. “In
Augustine’s thought, we desperately need not to be left to the tyranny of our own wills. The
key to true freedom is not just following whatever desires we happen to have, but cultivating
the right desires. This means that the internal movement of the will is not a sufficient condition
for freedom; we must consider the end toward which the will is moved.” (Cavanaugh, p. 12)
Cultivating a right desire regarding property requires us to view it as a means of building up
solidarity in God’s family, and envision a world in which “mine” and “not mine” are subsumed
into “ours.”

Capitalism is often justified as a way to redirect the unalterable facts of human selfishness
into socially beneficial channels, but the early Christians were not so pessimistic about human
nature. For them, every earthly reality was a path that leads to God because God’s power to
save was real. As with Chrysostom, Augustine did not believe that property was in itself evil. It
was the Roman law of absolute ownership which permitted owners to wall themselves off from
the human family that was evil. In this philosophy of the right use of property, as in so much
else from the early years of Christianity, Augustine uncovered the revolution embedded in the
teachings of Christ.

The Global Abuser

"These are people who believe in entitlement. These are arrogant elites who believe the rest of us don't need to know what they're doing with and to our lives. These are people see truth as a danger." David Michael Green, "What WikiLeaks Really Reveals" Common Dreams, 12/5/10 (http://www.commondreams.org/view/2010/12/05#comment-1686473)

The key word here is not "truth", which they do indeed hate but which is incidental to their main purpose, but "entitlement." The political elites and their ideological attack dogs reserve special savagery for whatever threatens to unravel their self justification. In the words of Derrick Jensen, "It all comes down to perceived entitlement. As Bancroft states, 'Entitlement is the abuser's belief that he has a special status that provides him with exclusive rights and privileges that do not apply to his partner. The attitudes that drive abuse can largely be summarized by this one word." The abuser has the right to lie and we must accept his lies and pretend that they are the whole truth and nothing but the truth. Doing this preserves the abusive family dynamic.

Again, Jensen, "Within an abusive family dynamic, everything - and I mean everything - is aimed toward protecting the abuser from the physical and emotional consequences of his actions. All members are enculturated to identify more closely with the family structure and its abusive dynamics than with their own well-being and the well-being of their loved ones and other victims...This 'well-being' is a particular sort, devoid of relationship and accompanying emotions, heavy on the kind of external rewards abusers reap because of their abuse (and of course precisely the kind of external rewards emphasized by a grotesquely materialistic culture), and most especially focused on allowing the perpetrator to avoid confronting his own painful emotions, including the pain he inflicts..." Derrick Jensen, Resistance, p. 564.

What the abuser fears above all is the sight of what he has done without his preferred moral justifications - justifications that allow him to carry out acts such as the murder of a million Iraqis, nightly drone attacks that kill far more women and children that supposed "terrorists", and gutting climate change to doom future generations to thirst and starvation.

DMG is right that they have little to fear from a pacified population, stultified with cheap goods, overwork, and hypnotizing spectacles. Jensen: "People will do anything - go to any absurd length - to hide the abuse from themselves and everyone around them." What Assange has done is expose the global abuser and his family members have rushed to protect his feelings.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

A Covenant of Justice

“Sojourners is fundamentally mistaken, though, in their reading of our times. At this horrible juncture in history when crimes against humanity are committed daily by our government and in our names, it is not a lack of civility but the absence of outrage on the part of Christians and the Church that ‘is a sign of moral danger’ to our nation.” Brian Terrell, “A Convenant for Outrage”, 11/23/10.

Thomas Aquinas, the man who made reasoned debate a foundational theological principle had this to say about anger, or ‘incivility’ as Wallis defines it,: “Anger may be understood in two ways. On one way, as a simple movement of the will, whereby one inflicts punishment, not through passion, but in virtue of a judgment of the reason: and thus without doubt lack of anger is a sin. This is the sense in which anger is taken in the saying of Chrysostom, for he says: ‘Anger, when it has a cause, is not anger but judgment. For anger, properly speaking, denotes a movement of passion’: and when a man is angry with reason, his anger is no longer from passion: wherefore he is said to judge, not to be angry. On another way anger is taken for a movement of the sensitive appetite, which is with passion resulting from a bodily transmutation. This movement is a necessary sequel, in man, to the movement of his will, since the lower appetite necessarily follows the movement of the higher appetite, unless there be an obstacle. Hence the movement of anger in the sensitive appetite cannot be lacking altogether, unless the movement of the will be altogether lacking or weak. Consequently lack of the passion of anger is also a vice, even as the lack of movement in the will directed to punishment by the judgment of reason.” ST II-II, a. 158 “Whether there is a vice opposed to anger resulting from lack of anger?”

The Christian tradition does not condemn anger as such, but only anger that is not in accordance with the order of reason. When reason and the passion for justice accord in righteous anger, then to lack anger is a serious sin. In the light of the tradition of the saints and doctors of the Church, I would say that not to be outraged “at this horrible juncture” is a mortal sin. We should beg God for forgiveness for our lack of rage and implore him for this gift.

It is not “political polarization” that is the dangerous threat, but the numbing apathy of Christians and others of good will in the face structural sin on a scale unknown in history. Jim Wallis, who has battled against this apathy his entire life, should recognize this and is rightly rebuked for his neglect of the passion for truth. Terrell rightly points out that the political polarization which liberal commentators denounce is a smokescreen for an utter lack of creative tension rising from outrage at real injustice. We should be fanning the flames of this discontent in every way possible rather than embracing the nauseating piety of mere “tolerance.” This will not preserve our humanity, but give comfort to those who would destroy it.

“A covenant not to condemn their crimes in the name of civility, however, does not help these perpetrators or their victims.”

Saturday, November 06, 2010

The Meaning of “Mine” and “Not Mine” in the Early Church

“French riot police tear-gassed workers trying to block a fuel depot and broke up a picket at a key refinery serving Paris on Friday, hours before the Senate votes on fiercely-contested pension reforms.” - “French Unions: We Won't Pay For 'Failures of Global Finance'”, Agence France-Presse, 10/22/10.

Why are the French rioting? Many of the governments of Europe now demand that severe austerity measures be imposed on public expenditures in order to deal with mounting deficits. The French government proposes cutting back on pensions to help balance the budget. Over the past fifty years, there has been an expansion of social benefits such as pensions that multiple generations have come to rely on. These benefits are now being rescinded to compensate for the hundreds of billions that were pumped into the banking system to stave off the collapse of major financial institutions whose risky investments had failed. Since these billions were provided by the public through taxes, it would appear that there has been a vast transfer of wealth from the public to the bankers whose malfeasance created the financial crisis. Rather than make up the shortfall in public revenues through increased taxation on the wealthy and corporations, these governments have chosen to cut back on the benefits provided by social programs. While other economic factors affect the current situation, these appear to be the essential facts concerning the “austerity” measures. The widespread perception of these facts by the French public provide the motivation behind the current strike actions and oil depot occupations which have caused fuel shortages throughout the country.

When confronted with similar situations in their own time, how did the great Christian thinkers respond? John Chrysostom, considered one of the greatest Christian pastors by both eastern and western Christianity, lived most of his life in Antioch, one of the most beautiful cities of the Empire. “In the fourth century the greater part of the municipal land there was in the hands of a few rich landowners - the proprietors of the fine villas described by Chrysostom in his works. The well-preserved ruins of these villas show them to have been large and solidly built, with stables and slave quarters on the ground floor and luxurious apartments for the owners and managers above. The wealthy owners represented only about one-tenth of the population. Living in the city, they had succeeded in concentrating in their few hands most of the agricultural lands of the countryside...Exploited by the city landlords, the peasants lived in extreme poverty.” (Charles Avila, Ownership: Early Christian Teachings. Orbis Books, 1983, p. 82-3).

Chrysostom’s response to the condition of the poor was unending outrage which he distilled into sermons that made him immensely popular with the Antiochian majority. But what is most interesting for Christians today is his radical theory of property rights. This understanding of property, shared by seminal Christian thinkers such as Basil, Ambrose and Augustine, became the traditional Christian understanding of property until the rise of capitalism in the sixteenth century. In a sermon he preached on Luke 16, Chrysostom defined robbery in the following terms, “This is robbery: not to share one’s possessions. Perhaps what I am saying astonishes you. Yet be not astonished. For I shall offer you the testimony of the Sacred Scriptures, which says that not only to rob others’ property, but also not to share your own with others, is robbery and greediness and theft...’Bring the whole tithe into the storehouse, that there may be food in my house’ (Malachi 3:10 - John reads, ‘for the robbery of the poor is in your houses,‘ for the last clause). Because you have not made the accustomed offerings, the prophet says, therefore have you robbed the things that belong to the poor. This he says by way of showing the rich that they are in possession of the property of the poor, even if it is a patrimony they have received, even if they have gathered their money elsewhere.” (Avila, p. 83-4).

Chrysostom was not speaking rhetorically. His sermons directly challenged the legal definition of ownership in the Roman Empire which enshrined the absolute disposition of property as a sacred right. The rulers of Antioch found his “socialist” ideas so offensive that they deposed him as Bishop of Antioch and sent him packing into exile. The principle implied in his definition of robbery is that God has given all a right to the goods of the earth, rich and poor alike. For one class to usurp the gifts of God for themselves alone while others starve he defined as robbery in the strict sense of the term.

In the following sermon, the spirit that animated the Acts of the Apostles flowers again: “And the multitude of them that believed were of one heart and of one soul: neither said any of them that ought of the things which he possessed was his own; but they had all things common.” (Acts 4:32). In this sermon, Chrysostom diagnoses the loss of tranquility which possessions inflict, “But what is the meaning of ‘mine’ and ‘not mine’? For, truly, the more accurately I weigh these words, the more they seem to me to be but words...And not only in silver and gold, but also in bathing places, gardens, buildings, ‘mine’ and ‘not mine’ you will perceive to be but meaningless words. For use is common to all. Those who seem to be owners have only more care of these things than those who are not.” (Avila, p. 85). Later, he proposes that the very concept of private property has no place in the Church. He says, “For ‘mine’ and ‘thine’ - those chilly words which introduce innumerable wars into the world - should be eliminated from that holy Church...The poor would not envy the rich, because there would be no rich. Neither would the poor be despised by the rich, for there would be no poor. All things would be in common.” (Avila, p. 85).

In this passage, he explicitly argues that the holiness of the Church requires that there should be no “mine” or “thine”, but that property should be a matter of social ownership. The vision of Acts 4:32 shows that the kingdom of God knows nothing of “mine” and “not mine”, but only recognizes the concept of “ours.” For Chrysostom, to be a Christian implies a deep understanding of the need for common ownership and the drive to incarnate this principle in daily life. Property was given to the wealthy so that they might grow in virtue by sharing it - that social goal alone justifies any particular ownership system. The early Christians had no illusions about rising tides lifting all boats.

The following passage from another homily might have been intended for the European bankers now enjoying unabated prosperity, “We do all things ignoring the fact that we shall have to give account of everything that goes beyond our use, for we thus misuse the gifts of God. For he has not given us these things that we alone may use them, but that we may alleviate the need of our fellow human beings.” (Avila, p. 92). No doubt erudite economists will explain why the prosperity of all requires the transfer of Europe’s wealth to fewer and fewer hands, but Chrysostom would not have been so tolerant toward wealthy bankers. He addresses those who would defraud the public and justify their theft by donating to charities with these words, “I do not ask you mercifully to render from what you have plundered, but to abstain from fraud...For, unless you desist from your robbery, you are not actually giving alms. Even though you should give ever so much money to the needy, if you do not desist from your fraud and robbery you shall be numbered by God among the murderers.” (Avila, p. 93). Murder was understood quite literally in fourth century Antioch.

Chrysostom did not believe that wealth was evil in itself. Wealth is a cherished gift of God. The economic evil that Chrysostom denounced was not “greed” as we think of it today, but the exclusive ownership by individuals of what was intended for the common good of all. Economic arrangements are just when they are ordered to the right of all to the use of the goods of the earth. Property rights are justified only in so far as they enable this common right of use. The absolute right of private property in Roman law was regarded as among the worst evils of “Babylon” by the fathers of the Church.

In his homily on Acts 4, Chrysostom presents us with a magnificent vision of koinonia. Koinonia means “communion by intimate participation” and in the social sense denotes sharing the wonderful gifts of God together. This vision is an enticing expression of what the kingdom of God meant to the early Christians: “Let us imagine things as happening in this way: All give all that they have into a common fund. No one would have to concern himself about it, neither the rich nor the poor. How much money do you think would be collected? I infer - for it cannot be said with certainty - that if every individual contributed all his money, his lands, his estates, his houses (I will not speak of slaves, for the first Christians had none, probably giving them their freedom), then a million pounds of gold would be obtained, and most likely two or three times that amount...What could we not undertake with our huge treasure! Do you believe it could ever be exhausted? And will not the blessing of God pour down on us a thousand-fold richer? Will we not make a heaven on earth?” (Avila, p.101). Note well that it is not the gold that makes the kingdom, but love for the common good.

“Hundreds of riot squad officers stood by in Lyon to try to prevent a repeat of Thursday's violence that saw security forces fire water cannon and fight running battles with rampaging youths in the east-central city.” - “French Unions: We Won't Pay For 'Failures of Global Finance'”, Agence France-Presse, 10/22/10. Chrysostom’s thundering outrage echoes in the deeds and shouts of the French protesters - “Not to share the gifts God has given for all is robbery!”

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Most of the left/liberal media seems to miss the growing irrelevance of our two-party political circus. We need ask a basic question about our political system: Why does it not seem to matter that candidates for public office don't even to pretend to engage the real issues such as global warming, the worst health care in the developed world, the catastrophe-prone nature of our financial system?

The really crucial decisions in this society are not made by the U.S. government, but by transnational corporations and the national security apparatus. The primary role of the government is to provide the necessary bureaucratic and legal infrastructure to ensure the interests of those who control these entities. Part of the reason that the quality of politicians has plunged so dramatically may be that they have fewer and fewer possibilities of modifying the real situation. As in the later Roman Empire, the legislature devolves more and more into a masque of what once had been genuine power.

In the current empire, the same applies to the president. The unseen irony of so much liberal commentary is that it is inspired by a belief that America as described in the Constitution still exists. How many liberal articles lament the cowardice and timidity of Obama and the Democrats in such florid terms? So many wail, "If only Obama had championed single payer, how different would the political landscape be today!"

Such commentaries misunderstand how power really works. Obama is not "the most powerful leader on the planet" as we hear so often. He plays an important role in a large array of power relationships, but real decisions are the result of continually evolving negotiations within that web of power. Obama's options are the product of these negotiations, not of his own principles, be they strongly held or otherwise. Because of this, politicians have evolved into rhetorical figureheads, role-playing symbols in the political theater directed by the media. They still wield real power, but this power is not the direction of public policy, whose conditions are foreordained, but act as negotiators between competing sections of the ruling class.

Where does the solution lie? In unity lies power. We need to seek out those willing to make the mental effort necessary to truly understand both the real situation and our options for changing it. Then we need to unite across all our differences, which may seem less important in the face of looming catastrophe.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

The Decency that Adorns the Face Of Power

"The liberal class, despite becoming an object of public scorn, still prefers the choreographed charade. Liberals decry, for example, the refusal of the Democratic Party to restore habeas corpus or halt the looting of the U.S. Treasury on behalf of Wall Street speculators, but continue to support a president who cravenly serves the interests of the corporate state. As long as the charade of democratic participation is played, the liberal class does not have to act. It can maintain its privileged status. It can continue to live in a fictional world where democratic reform and responsible government exist. It can pretend it has a voice and influence in the corridors of power. But the uselessness of the liberal class is not lost on the tens of millions of Americans who suffer the awful indignities of the corporate state." - Chris Hedges, "The World Liberal Opportunists Made" (http://www.truthdig.com/report/page2/the_world_liberal_opportunists_made_20101025/)

One reason the liberal class is so vicious toward left-wing radicals and other unbelievers in "America" is that such views spike the illusion within which they wrap themselves. As you say, "What they really want to save is themselves, and what they really want restored are their illusions about America."

Their real fear is well expressed by Hedges, "The liberal class, like the déclassé French aristocracy, has no real function within the power elite. And the rising right-wing populists, correctly, ask why liberals should be tolerated when their rhetoric bears no relation to reality and their presence has no influence on power." - Chris Hedges, "The World Liberal Opportunists Made" Exactly so, away with the "decency" that adorns the face of power.

Friday, September 03, 2010

What if God is Calling Us?

So often I hear the despairing words, "Leave it to God! He will bring all to the light!" Yet I wonder, and I cry, "What if we are the light that He is calling and we cannot hear his voice?"

Sunday, August 08, 2010

Let the Sixties Go

Mike Ely wrote the following concerning Abbie Hoffman, "And that’s the way you have to understand Abby. He wasn’t so much 'promoting drugs' (though obviously he was), but he was arguing that the new communities of youth and youth culture should actively work to politicize themselves even more — to see themselves as a oppressed by the society and the empire, and should more and more integrate radical activism (and revolutionary goals) into the assumptions of the culture and the communities. (I.e. imagining a revolutionary struggle by a ‘Woodstock Nation” — it wasn’t my politics, but it was the very popular and very radical politics of the Yippies.)"

As a peripheral member of the youth culture of the sixties who has transitioned through many political and spiritual permutations in the intervening years, I have thought much about the Hoffman/Rubin wing of the movement and my current thinking has congealed into a few basic ideas. As Mike Ely indicates, revolution was Abbie's ultimate aim, not drugs. But as Gandhi so often emphasized, the means and the ends of social movements are inextricably intertwined. Abbie represented that current in the youth movement who believed that culture in and of itself could be a revolutionary force. Long hair, drugs, rock music, and sexual liberation were not just fashion statements to him, as they were to most of those influenced by the movement, but embodied a revolutionary potential that he and the other yippies exploited for a "higher" purpose. But as much as I appreciated the culture at the time, I saw it even then as lacking serious revolutionary drive. It was a diversion of the hard work of building a true alternative to the culture of repressive tolerance. Of course, at the time, they would have and did say that it is this very seriousness is part of the same oppressiveness that were rebelling against - "Revolution for the Hell of It!" was the slogan. In many ways, they epitomized (and celebrated) the ephemeral nature of the "youth movement". By the early 70s, the yippies had scattered in a hundred directions. Some joined the religious cults. Jerry Rubin eventually became a "revolutionary" stock broker. Jerry, in fact, was quite open about the fact that he was a trend follower and that his anti-capitalism faded with the sixties. Abbie was different and fought the good fight to the end, but his cocaine adventures were exploited by his enemies to gravely harm organizing activities that could have been much more fruitful.

I agree with Mike Ely that the youth movement was politically defused and defeated, but part of the reason they were unable to defeat US imperialism was the confusion of style and substance that was epitomized by the Yippies. They were defeated by a number of forces, but if you read the autobiographies of some of the leading members - Bill Ayers and Cathy Wilkerson and other Weather Underground members - they clearly recognize that they committed grave tactical and strategic errors and that drugs played a role in these errors.

As we learn so well from Lenin, theory must guide action and many of the most politically active currents of the sixties failed to appreciate this. I think Todd Gitlin's writings on SDS are instructive in demonstrating how the cult of spontaneous action ultimately self destructs. Theory should constantly self-correct through feedback from action, but action alone cannot guide theory. Mike's overall point, though, is one I agree with. We have to be prepared at every moment to see and understand the revolutionary potential inherent in new cultural forms. We should celebrate when these forms have the power to drive revolutionary change, but we should not confuse the form with the substance of that change.

There are many senses in which "shocking and radical" can be taken. In the superficial sense of the sixties and many later movements such as punk rock, it meant "outrageous" in violating sexual taboos or taboos about disciplined support of the system of corporate oppression. Drugs were a way of offending against these taboos and still are. But they can also be used to reinforce corporate oppression by creating an artificial zone of "freedom" that makes submission to domination more tolerable. Religion can play a similar role as the "heart of a heartless world" as Marx expressed it. However, "shocking and radical" can also mean people with the guts to form alternative societies and make them work and that has been exceedingly rare since the sixties.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Liberation from Wealth

"For this revolution is not, in fact, concerned with liberating us from our poverty and misery, but rather from our wealth and our totally excessive prosperity. It is not a liberation from what we lack, but from our consumerism in which we are ultimately consuming our very selves. It is not a liberation from our state of oppression, but from the untransformed praxis of our own wishes and desires. It is not a liberation from our powerlessness, but from our own form of predominance. It frees us, not from the state of being dominated, but from that of dominating; not from our suffering, but from our apathy; not from our guilt, but from our innocence, or rather from that delusion of innocence which the life of domination has long since spread out in our souls." - Johann Baptist Metz, "Christians and Jews After Auschwitz"

The disease that Matt Taibbi diagnoses in "Will Goldman Sachs Prove Greed is God?" is far deeper than he imagines. It is a sickness in the social soul which all of us share and which can only be healed through the revolution which Metz envisions for us. The "prosperity" which is the unquestioned goal of virtually every conscious decision made is precisely the sickness that is destroying us, beginning with the corruption of reason into a pure instrument of acquisition. Mother Earth cries out in compassion for her lost children who are unable to understand the sacrifices required for life to flourish. We have turned ourselves into machines fueled by other men's greed and only by embracing poverty of spirit can we be saved.

Our false wishes and desires cry out for transformation. In some secret room in our soul, we know that the current direction of our society is an evolutionary and spiritual dead end, yet we cannot bear to pull the emergency cord on this train hurtling into the abyss. Instead, we heighten the illusions that nourish our decay and demand miracles of the God of our imagination. In doing this, we continually contribute to the true catastrophe, the one "which consists in the fact that everything goes on as before" - Walter Benjamin.

The word that best characterizes this revolution is conversion, but not the purely privatized conversion presented by Christianity Incorporated, that wholly owned subsidiary of the transnational corporations. A private conversion that has no social ramifications is a pure fiction for those who inhabit an inescapably political landscape of domination and subjugation. Such is the delusion of innocence that rots our souls with idealistic fetishes presented as true salvation in the mega-churchs, those mega-malls of spiritual consumerism. Jesus should once more overturn the stalls of these buyers and sellers of spiritual fraud. The prayer that God will gladly hear is the one that crucifies our false prosperity built on the exploitation of those little ones whose deaths we casually encompass for the sake of our SUVs.

The concept of a purely private conversion is the bubble within which our delusional innocence can be preserved. It is the bubble that must be pricked so that all the decayed myths can be drained away and we can begin to find a true innocence through the acceptance of our guilt - our silence in the face of the slaughter in the Middle East wholly financed by our dollars, our secret cheering at the triumph of those who are "really, really good at making money", and how we worshipers of science cannot hear the voices of those telling us that we are destroying the basis of life on this planet.

This indeed is the conversion for which we long. This conversion is like an electrical shock which reaches deep down into the direction our lives are taking, that "damages and disrupts our immediate self-interest" (Metz). This is the revolutionary "bread of life" for which we hope. We can embrace this conversion only when we are able to break the chain of immediate self-interest, the chain which Goldman Sachs gleefully wraps around itself and the government it pretends to obey. This sickness eats into our reason to the point that Goldman Sachs executives declare that, "The injunction of Jesus to love others as ourselves is an endorsement of self-interest." - Matt Taibbi. This was said precisely in the context of defrauding an entire country of its budget and plunging it into social chaos.

God calls to us to shed this false wealth that makes us lackeys of financial domination, of that world of "greed without limit" that is casting its shadow over us and to which we must succumb if we cannot change our hearts and the heart of our society.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Coffee Party - A Caffeinated Fantasy

We need the courage to make a break with the current U.S. political system. However, I have sympathy with Dennis Kucinich, who seems trapped, as many of us are, by choices made at an earlier time when conditions were less barbaric than now. When Dennis started his political career, unions were still strong and a liberal could take on powerful corporations and actually win, as Dennis did long ago. But few followed his example and we have gradually drifted into the current situation which borders on classical fascism.

Should Dennis have the courage and vision to step out of the graveyard of progressivism which is the Democratic Party today? I think so, but I also sympathize with his belief that he would be a less powerful force for change outside the party - in effect he is one of the last voices for sanity in the current Congress. Without him, one of the last strong progressive voices would be silenced in the seat of American power.

I turned to the Coffee Party web site with hope, but what I find there looks like the typical American "feel good" political event. The underlying theme in the videos is the one so insistently promoted by the news media - that partisan bickering is the real problem in Washington, that government is broken because of it, and that we need to just get along with each other and everything will fix itself. Behind this notion is the unquestioned assumption that the American form of representative government and capitalist economics is fundamentally sound, but that corporations have gained too much power and the people need to take that power back.

This narrative is so ingrained in today's culture that it is considered simply "common sense." Any "movement" based on these sentiments cannot possibly have a real impact on political power relations. The typical American allergic reaction to "ideology" dominates these gatherings, reflecting the unquestioned ideology that no fundamental change is needed. One hears the phrase "make government work" over and over without any attempt to define what "works" actually means.

In fact, most of the people at these gatherings remind me of Kucinich who remains committed to the current form of government because the alternatives appear to be wildly impractical and, in effect, a surrender of power to the dominant elites. Unfortunately, no political progress is possible without a rigorous analysis of the realities of power. Democracy in the form imagined by the founding fathers has never ruled America. The people can't "take back" the power from the corporations because they never had it in the first place. Whenever I hear criticism of "corporate power" I long to ask the denouncers what company they work for. Obviously, many of the Coffee Party members are in the very corporations whose profits send the lobbyists to Washington.

Once again, we are treated to an edifying spectacle, similar to the Obama campaign, that says in effect, "We can make the American system work. All we need is a dose of common sense and decency that the politicians have lost and everything can be right again." This, I'm afraid, is as delusional as the fantasies of Sarah Palin.

Friday, February 19, 2010

The Fierce Urgency of Now

Raya Dunayevskaya - the founder of Marxist Humanism and a guiding light for those who dream of a rational and humane world.

Our intention is to help build a revolutionary movement that will end the current corporatist domination of all aspects of modern life. In particular, the government's role as handmaid to the corporate agenda must end. There are many current models that we can look toward for inspiration and guidance. Venezuela is one such model where the principles of social control of production are being implemented with great success. On the theoretical side, thinkers such as Micheal Albert are establishing a set of realistic, practical principles for participatory economics and democracy (see http://www.zcommunications.org/znet for some easy to understand articles on this philosophy). Many others could be named as well.

These voices are rarely heard on Common Dreams or most other liberal blogs such as the Daily Kos or truthdig. The reason is, I believe, that they remain dedicated to the job of restoring the original vision of American democracy. The American Revolution was a great vision and one that I believe in, but it overlooked certain elements without which it could never succeed. Specifically, the founding fathers did not understand that private control over the means of production would eventually lead us to the situation we see today in which democracy is effectively neutered. We are living in a "managed democracy" to use Sheldon Wolin's term (check out his book Democracy Incorporated: Managed Democracy and the Specter of Inverted Totalitarianism ). Essentially, this means that while corporations purport to honor democracy, they so corrupt and manipulate the levers of power as to make democracy impossible.

Most of the authors that appear on these web sites would strongly agree with the latter sentiment. Where I differ from some of them is that I don't see a solution within the current system. I don't think there is a legislative solution, for instance. FDR passed strong legislation in the 1930s that put controls on the unmitigated greed that led to the Great Depression, but today virtually all of those regulations have been either rescinded or openly ignored because of corporate power. Notice that Obama isn't even trying to bring them back. In this, he may be wiser than some of his Democratic critics. As I've often posted on CD, Obama has a very realistic sense of power relations. He understands what his corporate masters want and how far he can go in deviating from those guidelines. The sad answer is not much.

With a few exceptions such as Chris Hedges, the liberal writers on these sites call for surface modifications of the old society instead of taking a stand for the establishment of a new society. They ask the powers that be to reform capitalism so that it is more humane, while remaining lucrative for the few. Such a project is futile. In the words of Frederick Douglass, "Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will." Their vision doesn't go far enough - they want to get rid of the abuses of capitalism without getting rid of capitalism itself. Capitalism will always revert to savagery because that is the nature of this beast.

Some might think this is too pessimistic, but I don't agree. There is actually a hidden core of optimism in this idea that I believe could lead to a second American Revolution. But before I get to that, let me explain further why I don't believe that capitalism can be reformed. The fundamental purpose of a corporation is to make profit and to do it in a way that allows it to gain an advantage over its rivals. Executives who fail to make the ruthless decisions required to make more profit no matter what the social or moral cost, will be replaced by others who don't have such quibbles. The simple reason for this is that they will bring more profit to their shareholders. This is not a hidden conspiracy, but a universally acknowledged fact.

The inherent dynamic of the corporation is to accumulate more and more capital without limit. This is what keeps the system alive. Without this constant forward motion, the system starts to weaken and die. While pundits rail about individual greed such as Bernie Madoff's, they will never acknowledge that such greed is actually the grease that keeps the system lubricated and efficient. Members of our economic system are greedy not because of eternal human nature, but because we live within an economic system that requires greed to stay healthy. The distinction that many writers make between Main Street and Wall Street, the productive economy and the parasites that bleed it dry, is a false one designed to legitimize the whole system. Greed, excessive consumerism, and privatizing profit while socializing loss is part of what it makes it work.

So, is that it? With no hope for reform, are we doomed to inverted totalitarianism? Not at all. Mankind finds itself in a spiritual and material cul-de-sac, as it has in the past. This time we are facing the absolute limits of the material nature on which our life depends. There is an inherent contradiction between ever-expanding accumulation and the fragile ecologies that provide us with everything necessary for life. Scientists of the highest reputation now agree that global warming is caused by human-based emissions and that the planet's ability to sustain life is rapidly eroding. We are now in the midst of an irreversible ecological crisis that will force a material change on the current economic system. Our job is to transform that material change into a demand for a new kind of society.

While capitalism appears all powerful today, it is actually a deeply flawed system that is currently displaying fatal weaknesses. Even on its own terms of promoting prosperity for the many, it has failed miserably. Far from being efficient, capitalism is the most wasteful system the world has ever seen. It destroys resources, both natural and human, without any regard for moral or even material values in the case of its insane destruction of the forests that produce the air we breathe. Billions of creative and intelligent people find their whole lives wasted with unemployment or jobs that use a tiny fraction of their real potential. Billions also starve, die from preventable diseases and live in violence and squalor while rich countries throw away 40% of all food produced.

Paradoxically, the monopolization of the capitalist system may be creating the most favorable opportunity in generations to expropriate it. Back in the 1960s, when the inherent monopolistic tendency of capitalism was held in check to some extent, you would have had to take over thousands of companies in order to plan the economy. Today, a takeover of the top 150 companies would suffice to control the vast majority of the world's resources. Thus, the corporate monsters that have seized control over so much human and natural wealth have set the stage for their own demise.

The same scientific planning which already takes place inside these corporations could be applied to the entire publicly owned economy. The results would be epic. There would be full employment with decent wages for every single human being on the planet, with much left over to reduce labor time and inaugurate a renaissance of humanistic values. Without the waste inherent to capitalist production, the cost of production would be cut and the price of goods dramatically reduced. Affordable housing, free healthcare and education could be provided for all. And that would only be the beginning.

So we see that stepping outside a failed system is far from a pessimistic stand, but the only basis for a real optimism. I hope you'll join us."

Wednesday, February 03, 2010

The Power Elite

One of the most widespread illusions propagated by media left and right is that politicians have a great deal of actual power to make changes. This illusion serves many useful purposes. It hides, however, the truth that at the very least several decades, politicians, including Presidents, have become mid-level functionaries in the power elite, essentially go-fers, not go-tos for that elite.

It's also important to understand that this is not a conspiracy theory. Conspiracy theories are a distraction from the study of the real power relations that exist in this country. Pointing out the class nature of American society is not equivalent to a "conspiracy theory." The inability to distinguish the two concepts is part of the stupidity which David Michael Green points out so ably in his recent article, "Just Gimme Some Truth.

"The rise of the elite, as we have already made clear, was not and could not have been caused by a plot; and the tenability of the conception does not rest upon the existence of any secret or any publicly known organization." - C. Wright Mills

However, mass stupidity doesn't just happen by chance. Green seems to think that if only we could get back to good old liberalism of FDR and Obama could throw a few punches like Harry Truman that we would be on the road to recovery. His astonishment at Obama's slow learning curve could be quickly overcome if he would drop the illusion of democracy and realize that we live in a managed democracy, as Sheldon Wolin put it. The sickness is much deeper than he suspects.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Real Change

David Michael Green's recent article "How to Squander the Presidency in One Year" portrayed Obama as follows: "It's almost as if he were a Republican sleeper politician in some party politics version of the Manchurian Candidate, planted to arise on cue and destroy the Democratic Party from within."

The truth is that there was no need for a Manchurian candidate - the Democratic Party had already been destroyed from within. We voted for Obama because we wanted to believe that the possibilities that once seemed so real were still alive. Obama skillfully packaged this longing while being savvy enough to know whom he actually served. We progressives, on the other hand, chose to cling to our illusions that genuine social change was possible under the current power structure and the shattering of our illusions accounts for the bitterness of DMG's articles.

I also agree with the likelihood of his future scenario. It feels like we're locked in our seats on a train flying like a bullet toward a new age of slavery and superstition. If the only political options were the ones recognized by the American political system, then perhaps the despair shown by DMG would be justified. But I don't believe it is.

There are alternative political possibilities, but to realize them the first step is to abandon the obsessive focus on Obama. DMG says he no longer cares about Obama, but he obviously does or else he wouldn't blame the failure of an entire political system on him. The roots of this crisis go a lot deeper than the lack of leadership of one man, even the President.

The assumption seems to be that the American system is not so sick that one man in the right position of power could change it. Unfortunately, it is, but we'll never get a chance to truly test out the theory because the system is set up so that such a man or woman could never get close to the Presidency.

The focus on the failures of the Democratic Party masks a continued faith in the American system. Some of us believe that the American people are great enough to reinvent their system of government and that is exactly what's currently needed: to recognize that the system of government founded 200 years ago was flawed in ways that can no longer be fixed and to accept the challenge of creating a new system of government based on fulfilling human needs and recreating a flourishing human and natural ecology.

Before we can understand what needs to be done to achieve this new government, we need to analyze the roots of our current impotent political psychology. In the words of Paulo Friere, "The oppressed, having internalized the image of the oppressor and adopted his guidelines, are fearful of freedom. Freedom would require them to eject this image and replace it with autonomy and responsibility. Freedom is acquired by conquest, not by gift. It must be pursued constantly and responsibility. Freedom is not an ideal located outside of man; nor is it an idea which becomes myth. It is rather the indispensable condition for the quest for human completion." - Pedagogy of the Oppressed.

In other words, the root of our passivity is our internalization of the oppressor. The media constantly paints images on our imagination with the colors of power, beauty, wealth and happiness, but these images are images of oppression. They represent a psychological infiltration that plants the oppressor within us, with whom we wish to identify because it is the only image we have of powerful and free human existence. We want to be like the dominator because of our longing to live according the standards of real humanity which we secretly nourish behind a facade of resigned cynicism.

But as Friere says, "Freedom is acquired by conquest, not by gift." Alienated forms of religion often play their traditional role here, promising a magical solution to our longing for a life suited to our actual human capabilities, virtually all of which are wasted by a social system blind to anything but exchange value. By promising such a life in the afterworld, these religions endorse the reign of the current order. They teach us that we must accept this world with all its injustices. Though we may add a ray of hope here and there, the message is "Here we have no abiding home. We are sojourners in this world of darkness, citizens of a heavenly world that will one day sweep this one away ..."

Thus the order of oppression is blessed by God who encourages us to flee this world and all its wiles. But something in our conscience can't let us rest in this cowardly heaven. Something tells us that real humanity doesn't close its eyes in the face of human suffering and flee into imaginary solace. Real humanity has something to do with struggling toward freedom, but the only culturally acceptable images of freedom are those of wealth and power. So we consent internally to the oppressor within and seek to realize our humanity in the only socially acceptable way.

So the path to freedom begins with taking a risk for freedom. That begins the process of building the psychological resilience necessary for freedom. Taking a risk means speaking up for justice when you fear that those you are speaking to will treat you as a fanatic or a fool. You can already hear their cynical laughter, but you speak anyway, not afraid of losing their esteem. It means speaking up for the insights and moral beauties that you have been given the privilege to witness in yourself or others. It means accepting the silence of those who wish to continue in their cynical acceptance of the "real world" which has no place for your insights.

You know that you are moving toward freedom when you can say with Gandhi "Truth is God" and you can serve him even in total solitude, perhaps all the way to death.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

True Generosity

"True generosity consist precisely in fighting to destroy the causes which nourish false charity. False charity constrains the fearful and subdued, the 'rejects of life,' to extend their trembling hands. True generosity lies in striving so that these hands-whether of individuals or entire peoples-need be extended less and less in supplication, so that more and more they become human hands which work and, working, transform the world." - Paulo Friere "Pedagogy of the Oppressed"

These words must be remembered by progressives as we all dig to give. As Bill Quigley proves in his recent article "Why the U.S. Owes Haiti Billions - the Briefest History",  the West owes far more than it can ever pay for what it has taken from the people of Haiti. Our task now is to help Haitians renew and carry to completion the revolution begun in 1804 so that hands which tremble now can transform the world.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Capitalism is Violence Against the Soul

Frank Rich's article belongs to the category of "Backhanded Apologias for Current Capitalism". It's a classic example of the genre, in fact. While seemingly a powerful denunciation of current Wall Street practice, it is in fact a subtly designed propaganda piece that supports the ruling economic class much more effectively than right-wing screeds.  

Let's start with real perspective. "The central task of the ruling ideology in the present crisis is to impose a narrative which will place the blame for the meltdown not on the global capitalist system as such, but on secondary and contingent deviations (overly lax legal regulations, the corruption of big financial institutions, and so on)." Slavoj Zizek, "First as Tragedy, Then as Farce" His ideological purpose is to contrast 'productive' capitalism to the bad, aberrant capitalism of the present. He praises Andrew Carnegie's bounty: "... some 1,600 public libraries, just for starters - but also for creating a steel empire that actually helped build America's industrial infrastructure in the late 19th century." How Andrew Carnegie treated his workers to build that empire is left conveniently unspoken.  

The inner drive that fueled AIG and still powers the record bonuses of Goldman Sachs is the same as the one that drove Andrew Carnegie. It is the constant pressure "...to expand the sphere of circulation in order to keep the machinery running, inscribed into the very system of capitalist relations. In other words, the temptation to 'morph' legitimate business into a pyramid scheme is part of the very nature of the capitalist circulation process. There is no exact point at which the Rubicon was crossed and the legitimate business morphed into an illegal scheme; the very dynamic of capitalism blurs the frontier between 'legitimate' investment and 'wild' speculation, because capitalist investment is, at its very core, a risky wager that a scheme will turn out to be profitable, an act of borrowing from the future." - Slavoj Zizek.  

Sorry, Frank, but Carnegie's capitalism and Robert Rubin's are born from the same litter. The idea that a new Pecora will clean up the mess is a recycled mythological trope intended to legitimize the beast that by definition cannot be controlled.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Who Narrates Rules

"Who narrates governs" - this key insight deserves development. As David Michael Green rightly points out in his recent article, "The Implosion of the American Political Consciousness", Orwell understands how power gains control over narrative. The most effective way is to "... just remove the possibility of imagining alternatives from the public's consciousness. Much easier. Much cheaper."

This is how propaganda works - by the removal of possibilities. "The goal of all enemy propaganda is not to annihilate an existing force (this function is generally left to police forces), but rather to annihilate an unnoticed possibility of the situation." - Alain Badiou.

The possibilities they don't want us to notice are obviously the ones Green uncovers. But the hypocrisy he senses behind the propaganda machine hides a deeper cynicism that has become all-pervasive: "...it is cynical precisely insofar as it does believe it's own words, since it's message is a resigned conviction that the world we live in, even if it is not the best of all possible worlds, is the least bad, such that any radical change will only make things worse." - Slavoj Zizek. It is the chains of this cynicism that we must first shake off.

This imaginative failure is due to the false restrictions that we have unconsciously absorbed from the main channels of political discourse. But the obvious possibilities he raises point in the direction of yet more hopeful ones. For instance,

1) Direct control over productive capacity by those who do the actual work in this country - producing goods to meet human need so that all can share in the bounty that technology has made possible.

2) The expropriation of idle and destructive wealth now in the hands of those determined to ruin the earth's ecology. Their violation of the common good has voided their right to that wealth.

Such ideas were the common currency of political discourse not so long ago - what's happened to our minds? Those interested in these ideas might want to take a look at the Universal Birthright proposal: http://dissidentvoice.org/2010/01/universal-birthright/