Reasoning About Faith: New Skins for New Wine

new-wineskinsCritics of Christianity and Christian apologists alike tend to approach Christian truth-claims as a set of content which either are, or are not, to be accepted, according to some previously determined–though generally unspoken–set of criteria. Public discourse occurs within various language communities, with sets of rules for determining whether a given argument is received as successful or not. Though individuals, and smaller sub-communities and sub-cultures frequently have their own sets of rules for making some judgments, there are nonetheless cultural logics which are effectively hegemonic, which provide a basic set of axioms and logics that most people, most of the time, employ when making or evaluating public arguments.

The actual set of such meta-rubrics, as we might provisionally call them, change over time. For a long period of late antiquity and the early medieval period in western Europe, neo-Platonism provided the basic structure for public reasoning, as witnessed in the works of writers like Augustine or John Scotus Eriugena. In the middle period of the medieval age, Aristotelian logic and metaphysics became ascendent in the west, especially through the work of Thomas Aquinas, who had the benefit of Arabic translations of works lost to Latin. (And it is of course worth noting how much overlap there is between Platoni and Aristotelean modes of reasoning.) At the end of the medieval period, both of these threads–the Platonic, still represented by the work of many Franciscans, like Bonaventure, and the Aristotelean, generally employed by Aquinas’s fellow Dominicans–both faced a crisis of confidence which led to new attempts at “first philosophy”, most notably in the work of Rene Descartes and John Locke. These and other figures of the 17th century ushered in “modern” thought, which has itself both evolved and been challenged by the panoply of critiques covered under the umbrella label of “post-modernism”. Nonetheless, some version of modernism itself still provides, in modified form, the basic set of criteria which most people employ in public discourse.

What exactly qualifies as the basic set of modernism’s truth-criteria is, of course, up for debate, but some basic assumptions like the following are generally seen as uncontroversial: the homogeneity of space and time, the limitation of the real to the perceivable or conceivable, the sufficiency of human reasoning to draw all valid inferences, and the individual thinker as the final arbiter of truth-claims. Each of these has come under some fire from both traditionalists (e.g. Thomists) as well as postmodernism (e.g. Foucault or Baudrillard), but by and large modernism’s basic structure of reasoning remains in force throughout most public discourse today–not only in the West (wherever exactly that is) but, increasingly, throughout the whole world.

Thus, not only the critics of Christian truth-claims but most apologists engage in their rhetorical struggles on this ground. Christian claims are understand as particular content–a set of pronouncements, each of which must be evaluated according to this over-arching meta-logic. While, in one sense, this is unavoidable and is ultimately necessary, I think there is reason to see such an approach to arguing about Christian truth-claims as highly problematic. This is because I think it is a mistake to see Christianity–or indeed any serious political or religious system of thought–as simply a collection of claims to be evaluated by whatever set of logics a given thinker happens to value and employ. Instead, such systems are, well, systematic. Christianity is not just a collection of claims (“there is only one God”, “Jesus is God incarnate”, “Jesus was raised from the dead”, etc.) but rather a complete system of thought–a set of axioms and logics that underpins those truth claims. That is to say: the claims, the content, arrive after one engages in reasoning according to the axioms and logics of the system. If one attempts to make sense of Christian claims apart from Christian axioms and logics, then it is unlikely one will find any of them convincing; indeed, one may not be even able to make sense of some of them in such a context.

Now, this is not to say that making judgments about Christian truth-claims outside of Christian axioms and logics is “wrong”; indeed, this is the whole point: to say that a given argument is wrong, or its conclusion false, or its method invalid, is to make a judgment–and as suggested above, whenever a judgment is made, one should ask: according to what criteria have you made this judgment? Judging, for example, Christian truth-claims according to certain modern logics–especially according to the assumptions of positivism–will yield one set of conclusions, while judging it according to other structures of thought will yield quite different ones. Likewise, judging the act-of-judging Christian truth claims according to, say, certain set of traditional Christian axioms and logics will yield one set of conclusions, while judging this act-of-judging according to modern logics will likely yield another. That’s a huge part of the difficulty in even discussing this issue. When we reason about the criteria we employ to make judgments, we are employing criteria to make judgments–we are making judgments about how to make judgments. The chicken and the egg both arrive on the horizon, but we never reach either.

However, the difficulty in seeing the complexity of this situation only gets worse when we recognize that, actually, few humans only employ one set of totally consistent systems of criteria. Most people employ at least two, and frequently they blend them in unpredictable ways. Thus, many Christians employ one set of axioms and logics when thinking about “religious” issues, but then, at their jobs, employ very different sets. Likewise, many non-religious people employ different sets of reasonings when thinking about scientific questions than they do when thinking about ethical or moral ones. Frequently, the systems of thought are incompatible, to the point of being mutually exclusive (this is actually not the case, I think, between science and religiosity broadly conceived, but consider the gap between evolutionary logic and the political ethics that most people hold dear, and a more glaring inconsistency makes itself clear. But this is a topic for a separate post.)

ouroborosSo each of us individually, and groups of us as communities, find ourselves attempting to adjudicate various truth-claims, many of which rest on differing assumptions, according to a blended set of axioms and logics, which are often actually rather obscure–that is to say, we often reason without being conscious of the rules according to which we reason. If and when we attempt to reflect on our own processes of reasoning, we find an intellectual mine-field, in which we have to employ the very criteria we wish to observe and study in our studies and observations. Reasoning about reasoning ends up resembling the unfortunate Ouroboros.

Of course, to some extent, this is just repeating some of the critiques leveled at modern logic over the past two centuries by thinkers often grouped together as post-modern (despite that term being largely indeterminate–though again, the difficulty of making sense of this term can’t be dwelled on here). But one should not allow any association with post-modernity–often a term of abuse employed by lazy thought that doesn’t want to truly engage critique–to obscure the real difficulty here. What I hope I have shown above is that the serious, self-conscious evaluation of any truth-claim always comes with an immense amount of baggage. Truth-claims do not sit, pristine and discrete, to be evaluated by some kind of Archimedean Reason. They always exist within a context and system of reasoning and axioms which themselves must be explored if we are to truly understand the original claims. But this is extremely difficult, the work of a lifetime.

Above, we’ve run through an extremely truncated summary of the formal dimension of the difficulty I want to discuss here: we have talked about reasoning in the abstract, outlining how any act of judgment is always an act of applying some particular set of criteria to a given question, and observed that this leaves questions about which criteria to employ wide open. I also claimed that most of us today, most of the time, employ some version of what I loosely called “modern” modes of reasoning to questions, after having suggested that such criteria may not always be appropriate to every question. Now I’d like to apply this formal argument to a particular claim.

The collision of Christian truth-claims and modern criteria of judgment is evident in some of the most basic claims of the faith. The idea that Jesus died but was somehow risen from death and then appeared to his disciples is an excellent example. Modern reasoning, in evaluating this claim, employs some of the basic assumptions listed above. Space and time are assumed to be homogeneous; therefore, any claim about what happened to Jesus must comply with the laws of physics as we now understand them. Likewise, the mechanics of this purported act of resurrection should be understandable to human reasoning. Any appeal to “mystery” is seen as only an attempt to dodge accountability, for all of reality is assumed to be either perceivable or conceivable by human thought. Finally, each thinker him- or herself assumes final authority and autonomy in reaching his or her own conclusion about the matter. Appeals to authority are likely to fall on deaf ears.

What kind of response can a Christian offer? One could attempt to argue each of the above assumptions philosophically, point-by-point. For the sake of keeping this post somewhat briefer, I will employ Scripture itself to model some of the logic that I think informs the Christian claim, to highlight the fact that in the claim about Christ’s resurrection we do not simply have a particular content, a truth-claim, which should be evaluated by whatever reason any given thinker brings to the table, but rather a truth-claim that sits within a broader context, a system not only of other truth claims, but of axioms and logics which anchor those claims. To assert the resurrection of Jesus is to assert a specific way of thinking about reality. Christianity is a way of thinking, not just a collection of content.

genesisilluminatedPerhaps the clearest way of pointing to this general system of thought is to appeal to the very opening of the Hebrew Bible. In Genesis chapter one, the cosmos in general and humanity in particular are pronounced “good”; indeed, we humans are said to be made “in the image of God”, the imago Dei. This is not a reference to our bodily form, but rather to our intellectual, moral, and/or spiritual nature and capacities. The upshot of the first creation story, the very opening of Jewish and Christian Scripture, is that reality has not only a descriptive content, but a moral or valuative one as well: it is good.

Yet the second chapter introduces a wrinkle in this optimistic opening. Something goes wrong, terribly wrong, with the good cosmos. The Accuser, metaphorically imaged by the snake, tempts humanity into transgressing the boundaries that support our very being, and by so doing, the good cosmos is cast into chaos. (The philosophical question here of the problem of evil more generally is one worth exploring, but which I can’t pursue here.) So we have a tension in the text, only a few pages in: in its essence, the cosmos is good, yet in its existence here and now, it is far from good. It is “fallen” from its true state.

These two stories appear themselves as collections of truth-claims about the way in which our world came into being, but they must be seen as providing a philosophical architecture to Jewish–and therefore–reasoning. To claim that the world as it is now is not how it is in truth is to announce an axiom of Jewish and Christian reasoning: Truth cannot be judged only according to how things appear to be for us now. Truth, Truth with a capital “T”, is, to some extent, other than how things currently appear to be. Current existence is a fallen version of Truth.

Once these stories are understood as presenting, through allegory and metaphor, a philosophical system, it should not be hard to see how this touches on our previous discussion of formal systems of reasoning and of the particular question we tackled above: the Christian claim of the resurrection of Jesus. For the axiom just outlined in Jewish and Christian reasoning is in direct conflict with some of the axioms of modern reasoning. Whereas we said that modernism (again, assuming a simple and homogeneous meaning to this thorny term) assumes the homogeneity of space and time, Genesis argues that how things are now is markedly different from how things are essentially. Likewise, by arguing that humanity is itself fallen, Genesis argues that human epistemic capacities–our abilities to perceive, to conceive, and to reason–may themselves be limited, may fall short of being able to fully grasp the Real.

Apart from providing these formal challenges to some of the axioms of modern reasoning, these Scriptural axioms also provide a grounding for understanding claims about Jesus’s resurrection. If in the resurrection, this one part of the fallen cosmos, Jesus’s body, is restored to its essential character as good, as unfallen, then we might expect that it would not “play by the rules”, as it were. Indeed, the fact that Jesus’s resurrection does not play by the rules of being in its mode of existence now is essential to the message. For if one understands the world in its current existence as less than it should be, then only an event that transcends the limits of being as it currently is constituted, the limits that confine being to suffering and dissolution, could possibly be seen as truly manifesting the restoration of being in its essential Truth.

This application of Scripture as a source of axioms and logics shows, I hope, that Christianity–and again, other religious, political, and philosophical systems as well–cannot be understood as simply a set of truth-claims, a disparate content. Instead, the faith must be seen as a system of axioms and logics, as well as the conclusions which are then seen as particular truth claims.

Now, this is not to say that any of what I have said above “proves” Christian claims. Indeed, my whole point here has been to assert that thinking of proof as some kind of absolute and unquestionable conclusion is inherently invalid. Once we recognize that all judgments are made according to sets of accepted criteria, then we can see that any act of “proving” an argument will only prove that argument according to the criteria applied. Proving a point is simply the concluding of an argument according to the axioms and logics accepted at the outset; so long as we ignore that different thinkers can accept different sets of axioms and logics, we will miss the fact that there is no automatic set of criteria that any reasoner must accept. (Here my “postmodern” proclivities are on full display, though this term is even less useful than “modernism”–again, there is much to be said on this score which I cannot pursue here.)

Thus, it is crucial to see that what has been laid out above does not “disprove” modern modes of reasoning. It simply offers an example of an act of reasoning according to different criteria. Now, if one wanted to ask whether there was a process for determining which criteria to accept, that’s a wholly different–and far thornier–question: we would be seeking a criteria for determining criteria, a meta-criteria. For the time being, I would only like to point that even if one accepts the Scriptural criteria of reasoning outlined above–that the existential is not necessarily the finally True–this does not in any way require one to reject modern criteria of reasoning for other questions. That is to say, there is no necessary conflict here between “religion” and “science”. To the extent that one is seeking to understand being as it exists here and now, then modern modes of reasoning seem to be the best tool for the job, considering how much of natural phenomena they have explained and how effectively they allow us to develop new technology. However, if one has questions that move beyond simply how things are, and instead inquire into why things should be that way, or why things should be at all, or as to the value of being as such, then one may find that such modes of reasoning are less useful.

That is to say: it seems clear to me that there are properly scientific questions, which we ought to pursue with scientific (i.e. one specific set of “modern”) modes of reasoning. There may be other questions, however, for which scientific reasoning is not applicable. It is only the assumption, common in the modern period, that all judgments must be adjudicated by scientific modes of reasoning that is being critiqued here. Refuting this position, however, does not necessitate holding that scientific reasoning is never proper for any question. Instead, the refutation of scientific modes of reasoning as hegemonic should lead us to conclude that this mode of modern reasoning is appropriate for some (indeed, many) questions.

It is worth pointing out that this conclusion is relevant to all human thinkers, whether one considers oneself “religious” or not. As suggested above, moral and ethical judgments also fall into the range of questions for which scientific reasoning is not appropriate–though, considering the length of this post already, I will not tackle that claim here.

The upshot of all of this, for an understanding of Christian thought, is this: Christianity is not just content, it is form. Accepting Christianity does not just mean accepting a jumble of truth-claims, but rather a whole system of reasoning. It is not just new wine, but also a new wineskin appropriate for holding that wine. This has far-ranging implications, I think, for Christians struggling to be both “in the world, yet not of the world” (John 17:14-19). We should neither accept that all of our truth-claims can be meaningfully adjudicated by accepted modes of public reasoning nor insist that all questions must be adjudicated by specifically Christian modes of reasoning. Indeed, there may be many questions for which Christian modes of reasoning–which focus on the essential, the eternal, and the moral–are not appropriate.

We can only walk this fine line, balancing differing systems of reasoning for different kinds of questions, however, if we are aware of the often-unspoken assumptions which guide human thought. I hope that in the above, I have contributed to our efforts to not only think well, but also to think self-consciously.

Plumbing Eternity, Getting Caught in the Depths

chrysalisApart from healing and feeding people as he traveled through Galilee and Judea, Jesus also spent a lot of time teaching people. Sometimes this meant interpreting the Hebrew Scriptures–explaining or reinterpreting the Law, for example, or quoting and applying passages from Prophetic literature. But frequently, when people ask him a direct question, they ask him about one specific thing: eternal life. “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” is a frequent refrain (Luke 18, compare John 3, etc.). Jesus spends a good deal of time, then, explaining what humans should do to attain this state of eternal life. But eternal life itself remains more or less un-explained. When Jesus does reference it, he almost always refers not to the state of one human being existing eternally, but to what he calls the “Kindom of Heaven” or the “Kingdom of God”. And when he does start to explain and define this, he invariably speaks not directly, but in parables: “the Kingdom of God is like a mustard seed…”

Considering how important both Jesus’s followers, and Jesus himself, seemed to regard eternal life, it’s a bit curious that the term remains so nebulous, so undefined. His followers are exhorted to seek eternal life, to live lives of love that can lead to it, but what it is exactly is never really offered. This has left a gap in Christian thought in which a wide range of ideas has entered. A whole range of concepts and definitions have been put forward to explain what eternal life will be like. Some are sophisticated and deeply grounded in philosophy, as per the ideas around the beatific vision, explored especially in Roman Catholic Thomist thought. Others are more folklorish and popular, such as the trope about playing ping-pong with grandma in heaven. The trouble is that none of these ideas seem to have a firm foundation in Scripture, all seem to owe more to secular and even pagan ideas, cultures, and values than anything identifiably Christian (the beatific vision easily brings to mind neo-Platonism, while many lay Christians’ conception of heaven looks more like the pleasures of the Elysian fields of Greek polytheism than anything in Scripture).

That Jesus is himself quiet on the details of eternal life is itself something worth considering. As mentioned above, when he does say anything about it, it’s always indirect, constructing analogies through parables. Here, in this space, I’d like to offer one way of making sense of this unwillingness of Christ to say more, when, on other topics, he seemed quite happy to be explicit, as, for example, in his ethical instructions around wealth or caring for those in need (see e.g. Matthew 25).

What reason might there be for Jesus, if he came to reveal the Truth to humankind, to be so silent on what seems to interest us humans most of all? If achieving eternal life is so important, shouldn’t we be told more about it? It has been common for Christian authors in the past to respond to such questions by an appeal to the importance of faith: if we knew the truth fully and directly, such an argument goes, we would not choose it for the “right” reason: what use would faith be, if we simply knew what was at stake? But surely this is a churlish argument at best, and morally outrageous at worst. If God, manifest in Jesus, wished to convey to humanity the importance of living righteously, wouldn’t God be willing to use any tool, any information, to convince us to mend our ways? Isn’t faith, ultimately, to be commended only because it is necessary here and now, only because of our incomplete knowledge and deficient faculties? As Paul says: “For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known” (1 Cor 13:12).

Faith is necessary now, Paul seems to be saying, not because living in faith is somehow better than living in knowledge or wisdom, but rather because there is something about the way we human beings are now that makes knowledge impossible. In other words, Paul is making a point that is–to employ a perhaps over-used and often-abused term–rather postmodern. He is making it clear that knowing everything about the world–in this case, what it would mean to inherit eternal life–is not just a matter of cataloging sensory experience and then organizing it rationally. Such an attitude towards knowing assumes that human beings can basically know everything there is to know, can come to have knowledge about any and all modes of being, if only we pay close enough attention and organize our conclusions rationally and systematically.

Paul is pointing to the possibility that there may be limits to what kind of information, generally, and what modes of being, more specifically, a given kind of knowing being might be able to access, process, or make sense of. The human way of sensing and knowing, that is, may have limits. This is a point that will more formally be made by Immanuel Kant in his Critique of Pure Reason and  will go on to be a central plank of his critical philosophy, itself providing the spring-board to what comes to be known as post-modern thought: that is, philosophy that questions the assumptions of modernism, the mode of thought launched (to oversimplify intellectual history drastically) by Descartes and Locke.

Well, I’ve clearly gotten well ahead of myself, and have meandered far beyond the boundaries of Scripture. But I think it’s necessary to make these connections, so that we can see what Paul is really up to. What can, at first, look like a somewhat sloppy, semi-mystical phrase turns out to be, upon closer inspection, a serious epistemic point. And Paul is not alone. Scripture frequently points to the possibility, indeed the likelihood, of formal limits on human ways of knowing–that is, it frequently offers a critical epistemology, or indeed a critique of overly confident epistemologies.

So: what if one of the states of being that human knowledge is unable to make sense of is the state of being called “eternal life”? That would make sense in at least two ways. Exegetically, all of the sudden, the fact that Jesus refrains from any kind of clear-cut discussion of eternal life looks to make a lot of sense. Secondly, it also may, somewhat paradoxically, tell us something about eternal life, even in the moment we announce our necessary ignorance of it.

This latter point is actually contained within the quote from 1 Corinthians above. Paul says that we see darkly now, that we have limited knowledge now–but he also says that, “then”, that is, once eternal life is present or has been achieved, we will see “as face to face”. He seems to be suggesting that the epistemic limits he points to in the first clause will themselves be transcended in the second. So how does this tell us something about what it might mean to attain eternal life? It seems that Paul is telling us there will be a transformation, from the kind of knowing being we are now–one with serious limits to our knowing–to a kind of being who will know differently, and indeed, better, perhaps even perfectly.

This idea of transformation is not limited to this one passage. Paul will himself say, later in 1 Corinthians: “we will not all die, but we all will be changed” (1 Cor 15:51). Likewise, too, Jesus in the third chapter of the Gospel of John says that we must be “born again” or “born from above” in order to enter the Kingdom. Whatever this may mean, it certainly suggests a serious transformation of our way of being.

Now, some may see such a move as a way of shutting down the question: by saying that eternal life will involve a transformation of some kind from the kind of knower that we are now to a different kind of knowing–that is, that an ontic change in our mode of being will effect an epistemic change in our mode of knowing–it may seem like we are just kicking the can down the road, avoiding hard questions. I’d like to conclude by providing two examples which may show, formally, the logic of this move. Pointing to analogies does not provide a shatterproof argument, but it may allow us to understand a previously-made argument with greater clarity and sophistication.

First off, we can quote Paul again, who speaks about the change between being a child and being an adult, in the sentence which precedes our original quote from 1 Corinthians 13: “When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways.” Imagine trying to explain certain adult experiences to a young child: sexual attraction, or the stresses of the workplace, or the responsibility of paying bills. We can, of course, use language to present these experiences. But there is no way to really understand what it’s like to feel sexual attraction, occupational stress, or the burden of bills, until one actually undergoes those experiences. One has to be the sort of being who goes through those experiences to really understand any linguistic expression about them.

Another, more radical example is that of the caterpillar and the butterfly. We talk about the process through which the former becomes the latter as one of transition or growth, but in many ways, the process actually involves the death of the caterpillar and the birth of something totally different. Yes, they have the same DNA, but the two beings are constituted completely differently. The body shape, the legs, the mouth, the digestive systems, even the eyes and other sensory equipment of each are completely different. The caterpillar builds a cocoon which becomes a chrysalis–and within this, the caterpillar is effectively dissolved, and its matter reorganized into a totally new mode of life: the butterfly.

Now, presumably, neither the caterpillar nor the butterfly has what we humans would call self-consciousness. But imagine that they did. For the caterpillar, the chrysalis is really a death. Its consciousness would end as its brain and sensory organs are dissolved. However, it could be the case that the butterfly, upon its birth from the chrysalis weeks later, might look back upon the caterpillar’s existence as an earlier stage of its own life–just as I do, in fact, look upon my life as a 5-year old as an earlier stage of my own identity, even though the life I live and the consciousness I now have would be totally unrecognizable to that 5-year old version of myself–who has, in a real if figurative sense, died.

We Christians may be eager to imagine eternal life as our current identities, or at least some best-version of them, living on for eternity. But I don’t think that’s what Jesus was referring to. He was calling for us all to endeavor to be changed–to be re-created into the true of image of God, that which we were meant to be but which we fail to attain in this fallen life. Imagine that a prophet-caterpillar came to a colony of caterpillars and promised them renewed life in the chrysalis. Imagine that they all rejoiced in the thought that they would enter the chrysalis and then live as caterpillars for eternity. Of course, that’s not what the chrysalis is, what the chrysalis does. It will transform them. Looking back from their butterfly-future, they may identify with their past selves, their caterpillar-selves. But first, they must be transformed into something radically different.

Beyond the Technical: Seeing the Need for Systemic Change

crisisaheadIt is a common refrain that our society is facing a crisis. Whether it’s our schools, Social Security, our moral culture, or the environment, decay and collapse are in the air. This isn’t a new development–the idea that the current order of things is on the verge of dissolution is at least as old as the book of Daniel. But with the recent election, this sort of rhetoric has been amplified yet further. Most of those jockeying for positions of power present themselves as the solution to the impending crisis: if you vote for me, the world won’t end. This kind of public presentation is not limited to candidates for political office. Non-profit organizations and for-profit corporations alike constantly present themselves as our only hopes in a dark world–whether it’s a group like Greenpeace asking for donations or a company like Monsanto promising a happy future if their product is allowed to go to market. Everyone agrees that there’s a crisis, and everyone is arguing that they–and normally they alone–can avert it.

In fact, of course, there is good reason to think we really do face a crisis–or even a set of them. Global warming alone poses a serious-enough threat to take the mood of impending doom quite seriously. The question is then: what should we do in response? There’s good reason to think that what has been done up til this point to combat global warming is infinitesimally small compared to what is needed. Sticking with the example of global warming, we are well aware that even with huge numbers of solar panels and wind turbines being installed over the last decade that we are dumping even more CO2 into the atmosphere than ever before. And if we include the interlocking environmental crises–whether its the Pacific Trash Gyre, the presence of mercury in seafood, or increased presence of thousands of carcinogenic compounds in human tissue, it’s obvious that the problems are mounting while the solutions are either absent, or pale before the task.

We know there are serious problems, and many of us are spending not small amounts of time, money, and energy to solve them. And yet if anything, we are worse off each year, despite ever-growing wealth and technological capacity. What gives? If we are more aware of the problems, have more resources to address them, and ever more sophisticated modes of response, we would expect the problems to be solved as the future unfolds. This isn’t happening, and I think this disconnect between the expectations of progress and the reality of stasis or indeed regress needs serious attention.

Of course, there are a range of technical, political, and economic factors at work here. As I am not a climate scientist, a policy wonk, or an economist, I’d like to step back and try to make sense of this disconnect from a more general, but still I think explanatory, angle. We live in a society that increasingly celebrates the particular over the general, the technical over the strategic. The assumption is that once a problem has been identified, experts on the subject at hand should be brought in to propose a solution according to their technical understanding. And of course, for many problems, this is exactly the right response. If your car breaks down, call a mechanic. If you are sick, call a doctor or nurse. If your budget is unbalanced, call an accountant. These are all technical interventions that make perfect sense.

But this kind of narrowly-focused response operates with a rarely-analyzed assumption: that all problems are problems of some particular thing or limited set of things. If a car isn’t working, something must be wrong with the particular parts of its engine or transmission or electrical system. If someone is sick, one or more of their organs must not be working properly. If a budget’s totals don’t add up, either a number was entered incorrectly or the arithmetic was fumbled. There is some thing, or some limited set of things, that needs to be adjusted, removed, changed, so that the broader system can work as intended.

But what if a problem is more general than this? What if a problem is being caused not by one particular piece of something malfunctioning, but rather is the result of the system itself, working as intended? In this case, technical intervention will not likely be effective. If the problem is the system and not any of its parts per se, then no kind of tinkering with the parts, swapping in new parts, or removal of them will substantially effect the problem. If the problem is systematic, then the solution probably will be too.

Such situations, where problems arise from deep and broad systematic causes rather than from a few particular items within the system, are far more difficult to address than more limited technical problems for at least two reasons. First, and most obviously, the problem is probably much bigger in scale. Systems tend, of course, to be bigger than their parts, so if a problem is systemic rather than particular, there will be a lot more to fix. That bigger problems are harder to solve, generally speaking, than smaller ones will surprise no one. But there is a second, and more subtle reason, that systemic problems are more difficult to address. And it’s this dimension I’d like to discuss further.

If a systemic problem is a problem in a truly large system, then the problem can be exceedingly difficult, even intractable, because the very sub-systems and habits of technical intervention are themselves products of the system which is causing the problems. In other words, if we are talking about big problems like global warming, economic inequality, political corruption, etc., the we are talking about problems in human social systems. That means that our very ways of perceiving, objectifying, and then responding to problems are themselves part of the problematic system. There is an epistemic obstacle that has to be surmounted to even understand the problem at hand, before we can even discuss solutions. This is a difficult claim to wrap our minds around, because we are now trying to analyze our very means of analysis. I think at this point, examples are useful. Economic and financial ones are, I think, perhaps clearest.

Take agriculture, for instance. Let’s say a farmer finds that the price of the crop she is growing has been going down each year. What can she do to make more money? For the most part, crops are crops–farmers have a hard time differentiating their produce from that of other farmers. The only reliable way to increase income by farming is to either switch to crops that are currently yielding better returns, or to increase the amount of crops grown. If the farmer attempts the latter, easier and cheaper solution, perhaps they will bring more land under cultivation. Let’s say they produced 100 tons of grain this year, and then next year they increase their production to 110 tons, an increase of 10%. They might assume they will make 10% more revenue as well, solving their financial problem.

But this won’t happen. This one farmer, of course, will not be the only one to notice the drop in prices for the crops they sell. Thousands, millions of other farmers will have noticed the same problem, and will have the same possible set of limited responses. If every farmer increases the production of this particular crop, they all may expect to make more money. But of course, if the entire market for this crop sees a production increase of around 10%, what will happen to the price? It will fall (all other things being equal). Supply will have gone up without any change in demand. So: the very response the farmers made to address the fall in prices will actually cause the price to fall even further.

Of course, the farmer could attempt to change which crops she is growing, to a crop that currently has a relatively high margin between cost of production and price at market. But note that not only does such a transition normally involve a large increase investment in seeds and equipment (as well as perhaps more labor hours, etc.) but, again, every other farmer in the world sees the same problem, and many may try the same solution, leading to the same supply glut that we explored above.

It’s worth noting that this is not just a hypothetical example; in the post-colonization period in Africa in the 1960s and 1970s, both the IMF and the World Bank made loans and loan adjustment for many countries in that region contingent on structural economic changes in those countries’ agriculture policies. In short, they demanded that these countries adopt policies that moved farmers away from subsistence agriculture–that is, growing the plants they themselves ate and made clothing and other products from–and towards cash-crop agriculture, in which farmers instead grow commodity crops for sale on the international market (e.g. cotton or soy).

The results of insisting on this policy for numerous countries, and therefore millions of farmers, at the same time, was of course a glut in the production of many cash crops and a resulting collapse in their price. The switch from subsistence agriculture to cash-crop agriculture meant that these farmers–who before had been self-sufficient, even if poor–meant that they now depended on foreign farmers (esp. US farmers) for their food. As the price of the crops these African farmers themselves sold went down, their purchasing power went down as well. What this ended up meaning was that these farmers went from a position of poverty where they could at least feed and clothe their families to a position of extreme poverty where they could not even guarantee food on the table.

And of course this meant that many of these farmers went into debt and ultimately lost their land, leading to the concentration of agricultural land in fewer, wealthier hands, and in some cases, in foreign companies. The technical solution offered to these farmers demonstrably made the problem worse (it’s worth noting, of course, that in this case, this worsening of the problem was no doubt intentional on the part of the IMF and World Bank).

The problem here was not with the individual farmers, but with the economic, political, and logistical systems in which they lived and operated. An agricultural system built completely on private property and markets will generate this problem time and again, leading to boom and bust cycles (as well as crushing poverty among many rural workers around the world).

Technical solutions, like better fertilizers, or GMO crops that provide better yields, or more efficient machinery, can give a particular farmer a short-term edge, perhaps delaying the problem, but can not solve it, because the problem is generated by the economic decision-making that is forced upon farmers not by the technical or biological limitations of their capital or seed stock, but by the economic and political systems in which they live. This point is absolutely crucial to see in such situations, because we can only address a problem once we actually understand it.

Said more generally: the financial and industrial systems that govern agriculture under modern economies will generate problems that those systems cannot solve, precisely because the fundamental cause of the problem is the system itself. This point also applies to areas beyond agriculture. If we want to understand growing income inequality, global warming, etc., we have to move beyond limited analyses and the limited solutions they generate. Job re-training is a completely insufficient response to income inequality, as is cap-and-trade legislation for addressing global warming.

So long as the owners of factories and other businesses have the incentive to extract as much value from workers as possible while paying them as little as possible, then they will have incentives to make decisions that increase income inequality, whether through union-busting, exploiting immigrant workers, or moving businesses overseas to countries with fewer protections for workers.

Likewise, so long as our economic systems incentivize the burning of fossil fuels, companies will endeavor to keep doing this. Pointing out the technical issue–that burning fossil fuels is a leading contribution to global warming and all the problems this brings–is completely insufficient to the task at hand. We need a different economic system if we hope to get a different economic results.

This is the reason we must be on-guard against purely technocratic solutions, which have become central to the platforms and policies of the Democratic Party over the last 40 years. Small adjustments to a broken system may be worthwhile as stop-gap measures to try and prevent some suffering in the short-term. But unless we take the task of seriously over-hauling the whole system, the problem will only fester, and suffering in the long-term will be magnified.

The crises we face today are massive and interlocked, the result of the social, economic, and political systems that have predominated over the last two centuries. We have to find a way to maintain the real gains and advantages of these systems–liberal democratic capitalism is not without its real achievements–while also fixing the fundamental pitfalls, and providing new structures and systems where the status quo has failed most fully.

If your ship is filling with water, it’s time to grab a bucket and start bailing it out. If the last ten ships you’ve built all have leaks, though, at a certain point you need to assign some people to look over the blueprints and propose some structural changes. To simply call for more buckets to be made is surely madness. And yet that’s where we find ourselves today: with politicians and businesses and even many non-profits all claiming that they make the best buckets. Our crises demand much more: a fundamentally new set of social, political, cultural, and economic systems.

How “Do What You Love” Reflects Our False Identities

do-what-you-love“Do what you love.” This is now the stock advice given to young people seeking work. This advice encourages young people to not worry about what jobs are actually available, or what kind of income one can expect from a given field, but instead to focus only on seeking work that one will actually enjoy. On its face, of course, it seems like great advice–everyone would prefer to spend the 40 or 50 years they’ll be working doing something they enjoy rather than something they don’t. But the phrase is based on premises that often go un-analyzed. First off, as many have pointed out before, the freedom to “do what you love” is itself a privilege, and one that many simply don’t have. For those living paycheck-to-paycheck, one has to do what pays the bills, even if they hate it. The alternatives–eviction, hunger, cold–are sobering enough to discipline most people from any impulsive career decisions. Doing what you love is, in other words, something you can only do if you are either independently wealthy or supported by generous family members. It is the purview of upper-middle and upper-class dreamers alone.

This simple and obvious–yet often overlooked–fact reveals not only the privileges of the well-to-do, but also the fact that the vast majority of such well-to-do folks aren’t even aware of this privilege. The assumption is that everyone should–and could–simply do what they love; those who work dead-end or low-paying jobs, seen from this perspective, are just inexplicably choosing to not do what they love. This fact is taken as is by the do-what-you-love crowd, at face value, as a sad commentary on the failure of working-class people to self-actualize and live their truest selves. It never seems to enter into the minds of these folks that many people have no real choice; they do what they have to.

This disconnection between the well-heeled advocates of working only one’s passions and those who work jobs they hate out of fear of homelessness and hunger goes much deeper than job advice. The basic pattern of thought manifest here reveals a lot about the ways in which people of different classes construct and maintain their very identities. For people basically encultured into bourgeois social locations, one’s identity is based around one’s interior states: what makes me happy, what I feel passionate about, what interests me, etc. Such a person is likely to see themselves as more or less the master of his or her own destiny; to the extent that such a person does not achieve what they desire, they will likely look inward to make sense of this failure. Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In and the growing popularity of visualization and positive thinking are two good examples of this essentially bourgeois self-identity. The “I” is understood as a more or less stable entity, a subject who arranges the world of objects it finds around it so that they are best suited to its preferences.

Those raised in a more proletarian or working-class social location are likely to think in a fundamentally different way. They recognize themselves as largely, though not exclusively, defined by exterior circumstances: how much necessities cost, who is hiring, what natural and political forces act upon them, etc. Such a person is likely to recognize that they are very much not the master of their own destiny, that forces beyond their control will shape much of their lives. Their attitude towards work is likely to be straightforward and practical: they do whatever they can that makes the most money, because money is scarce and without it they will face real hardship. That’s not to say, of course, that such people take no pride in their work or don’t hope to enjoy it–but they tend to take pride in doing a good job with whatever work comes their way, and they seek to find ways of enjoying it, whatever it may be. In other words, they try to love what they (have to) do, but they are under no illusions that they can simply choose freely to do what they (already and for reasons of their own) love.

To point out that people of different class backgrounds think of themselves, their work, and their world in fundamentally different ways is to make not only an ontological point about society and social groups, but also to suggest something more fundamental–that the epistemic structures through which people think are actually quite diverse, and built on mutually exclusive assumptions. This may provide some clarity in making sense of the way in which people seem to so often completely misunderstand one another.

If one sees work as fundamentally something one chooses to do because of one’s own particular identity, as the outpouring of a passion and an interest, that may make it hard–or even impossible–to understand why anyone would remain in a job paying minimum wage. For someone with the bourgeois self-identity as outlined above, when thinking about those who work such jobs, one has a choice. One can either explain the minimum-wage worker through the terms of bourgeois social identity, or one can admit that perhaps this social phenomenon cannot be reduced to this explanatory framework. People rarely choose to have their way of perceiving and conceiving of reality changed. Much more often, we reduce confusing phenomena to factors we can understand, we homogenize what is different to make sense of it according to our own presumptions and values. Thus, many people raised within a bourgeois social location find themselves struggling to make sense of the minimum-wage worker, and resolve their confusion not by exploring what that worker would say for him- or herself, but according to the terms that make sense to the bourgeois thinker.

This basic cognitive and epistemic process may explain how so many people simply assume that minimum-wage workers must be lazy and unmotivated. Employing the logic that they have been encultured into, this is a perfectly reasonable conclusion: if people always have the freedom to make the choices that maximize their own happiness, and someone makes a choice that consistently makes them unhappy, they must be either stupid or lazy. If someone understands human identity and microeconomic decisions from the standpoint of the bourgeois subject, this conclusion is hard to avoid.

Such a person would have to be willing and able not only to imagine circumstances very different from their own in order to understand the logic that compels people to work jobs they hate, they would actually have to be able to think differently about self and labor. They would have to recognize that not only the minimum-wage worker, but they, the middle-class “do what you love” worker as well, is constrained and defined by the exterior social and economic forces of capital accumulation. That is to say: they would not only have to come to terms with some hard truths about the brutal way that capitalism treats the working poor, but also about how the same system of capitalism undercuts middle-class workers the agency and subjective freedom they value so highly and which, in fact, are essential to their own self-understanding.

Thus, to see the world the way that most working-people do can actually be traumatic for a well-to-do white-collar worker–personally traumatic, because it will displace their own cherished ideals, the ideals that are essential to his or her own self-image. They will find that the “I” they take to be the central reality of their existence is actually mostly, perhaps even entirely, the product of social and economic forces they neither comprehend nor approve of. They will be radically displaced, revealed to be something other than that which they dream to be. It should not be surprising that they will resist this realization, that they will fight tooth and nail to not achieve this consciousness, because it is painful on these two levels–the social level, in which they realize their world is more brutal to vulnerable people than they want to admit (it is much easier to blame the unfortunate for not engaging in enough positive thinking)–and also this latter personal level, in which their own sense of self is deconstructed. Recognizing the violence inherent in our existences is not pleasant. Of course we would rather see the world through rosier lenses.

It should go without saying that the basic phenomenological and sociological analysis laid out above applies to racism and sexism as well. For white people to truly recognize not only the violence inherent in their social realities, but also that their very identities as white people have been and are generated by this violence is incredibly difficult, even offensive, to accept. For modern people, steeped in the rhetoric of democracy and equality to accept that where they live, how they talk, and what they do have been shaped in fundamental ways by slavery, genocide, and rape is to accept a kind of existential death. Likewise, for men to recognize that much of what is understood as defining masculinity is built on violence and control, not only of women but of other men, is not something most men will want to admit. It means accepting that who we are will have to change if we care about justice. Who we are at a fundamental level, at the very core of our being, the very basis of our identities. Who would seek this out?

All of this should yield at least the following two conclusions: first, we should not be surprised at how often people in positions of relative privilege will cling to perspectives, logics, and modes of perception that seem clearly, ridiculously false upon rigorous inspection. It should not be surprising that people do not want to accept the wholesale displacement of their world- and self-views. Such a displacement is painful, traumatic, and indeed impossible to even imagine, by definition. It is a sort of dying.

But this must not for a moment lead to us thinking that speaking the truth about capitalism, patriarchy, racism, and the other systems of exploitation should somehow be toned-down to protect the feelings of the relatively privileged. Certainly, recognizing the potential for serious pain and trauma among the privileged may lead us to change tactics and rhetoric in our discussions. It may be necessary to build real trust and intimacy with people before we can challenge them to see the world more clearly. We may also want to stress to them that their feelings of resistance to this change in consciousness are normal, and that they should not pretend to not feel them, or be overly shamed by them. We can hopefully have a frank conversation about all of this, and build the possibility for both empathy and solidarity moving in both directions in these hard conversations. But we cannot allow the feelings of privileged people to be valued more than the lives, the incomes, and the personal safety of the vulnerable. (To stress this precedence of the objective and material circumstances of the poor and vulnerable over the feelings of the privileged is itself a reflection of the proletarian epistemology as outlined above, of course, and shows that there is no neutral ground, no Archimedean view-from-nowhere.) Above all, Christians truly concerned with social justice must hear what God has to say: “let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” and “the truth will set you free.” (Amos 5:24 and John 8:32, respectively).

The Threat of Power and the Limits of Solidarity

protestkyates“Power concedes nothing without a struggle. It never did and it never will.” Frederick Douglass sums up the fundamental attitude that has animated the American radical left and labor movements for the last 150 years. To place one’s hopes in electoral politics, business reform, or the goodwill of elites, from this perspective, is to believe the fairytales of Liberalism. Far from being a series of reasonable conversations by reasonable people, labor organizers and radical leftists have a much more Realpolitik conception of politics: it is a struggle of power. If workers, minorities, women, the LGBTQ community, etc. want change, they have to identify, expand, and mobilize real power to force those in positions of authority to either cede to their demands, or be removed from office.

In short, whether explicitly or not, leftism recognizes the truth of Marx’s claim that human social relations were largely (if not entirely) reducible to class struggle: political and economic structures are simply means of extracting value from workers while returning to them less value (in food, clothing, etc.) than they generate. The margin between the two, between revenue and expenses, is profit, itself the essential fuel for the engine of reinvestment, by which capital reproduces itself.

Fundamentally, this view of human society results in radicals’ taking an adversarial stance to all of those in power, whether government administration, in business, or indeed in mainstream culture. All such figures are understood via their structural, rather than individual, identities: their incentives are to maintain the system that gives them power, wealth, and prestige, and so no matter how morally upstanding they may be as individual people, they will, push come to shove, always serve the interests of capital, even if that means horrendous devastation for workers, the environment, racial or sexual minorities, etc. It is the structure of power, and not the personal qualities of the various officers, representatives, or managers, that is essential.

Now, one could certainly, even from a radical-leftist perspective, challenge this account. I’ve attempted to compress nearly two centuries of political theory and practice into three paragraphs, so inevitably I have engaged in massive generalizations. But for the moment I want to assume this basic framework of political thought to raise a question about specific political practices (a debate about how accurate the above account actually is would itself, of course, be valuable–but I won’t be addressing that in this space.)

In short, assuming the above account, how does one avoid falling into a kind political nihilism? If it’s the case that everyone, without exception, is only serving their particular role in reproducing capital as an abstracted value controlled by a small class of property-owners, then how can workingpeople ever generate real communities of resistance? Won’t it be the case that even fellow workers will themselves always be waiting to take their own cut of capital’s spoils? If all are corrupted by the structure of capital’s mode of self-reproduction, on what foundation can real movements of justice and liberation be built?

Well, the committed leftist can respond, according to the theory of class struggle itself, those who do not find themselves directly benefiting from the generated profit of capital’s reproduction–e.g., the workers whose labor is exploited, from whom this value is ripped–have a unique structural role within capitalism. From this (more or less orthodox Marxist) viewpoint, the goal is to clarify the confusion of false consciousness, to make it clear to all workingpeople who their real enemies are, and thereby build solidarity among such people–who, after all, generally constitute a majority or near-majority of most populations in industrialized nations.

From this perspective, then, power is built in a perhaps cynical, but at least honest way: workers should be willing to commit to radical leftist politics for their own individual interest, even if lofty concepts like justice and equality in the abstract don’t motivate them. The problem with this perspective has become particularly clear through experience of organizing in the US during the 20th century. So long as workers view the political landscape this way, and sign on to radical politics only so as to get theirs, they will constantly have an incentive to abandon the movement if capital offers them a better deal. Indeed, this is what has happened time and again, perhaps most obviously in the case of the AFL, which as a craft/trade union of skilled workers, has often (especially in the early 20th century, before joining with the more militant CIO) had incentives to abandon industrial workers and other low-skill workers in their contracts. This historical fact reveals that in many ways, many workers themselves are basically potential petit bourgeoisie, or to put it more plainly (and to quote* John Steinbeck): “I guess the trouble was that we didn’t have any self-admitted proletarians. Everyone was a temporarily embarrassed capitalist.”

This tendency of workingpeople to break ranks and make separate deals is a serious problem, and, unsurprisingly since this is not my area of study, I have no helpful or pragmatic response to it to offer here. But it also brings a related problem into sharp relief:

In many ways, the basic theory of class struggle hurriedly outlined above has only been made even starker by critical theory and Michel Foucault‘s work, which (to massively generalize and paraphrase), stresses that all human communication is fundamentally oriented to the maintenance and expansion of power, even–perhaps especially–if the person communicating doesn’t realize this (it’s not always their power that is being maintained or expanded, of course, e.g. internalized racism). This view simultaneously brings important, if depressing, facts about human social life to the surface, but also runs the risk of destroying the potential for building solidarity among workingpeople, for if everyone, no matter how marginalized, is simply a node of power reproducing itself, if we are all in truth temporarily embarrassed millionaires, if all of our interactions are really just sly flanking maneuverings in socio-economic combat, isn’t all hope for a liberatory politics lost?

This is not a purely theoretical question, as many of the political movements among Millenials have focused on precisely this problem, albiet often somewhat implicitly. I offer two examples: first, I would point you to the claim made by some black feminists and womanists that “solidarity is for white women“, a phrase that spread as a Twitter hashtag in 2013 and which simultaneously exposes the real fault lines of leftist and progressive movements as well as the cynicism which lies just beneath the surface of a political discourse that so often tries to build itself on a foundation of hope. Likewise, the honesty of many black organizers in the Movement for Black Lives has led to many of them directing sharp criticisms both at politicians one expect them to see as likely allies–e.g. both Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton–but also at white allies more generally.

Many (white!) commentators immediately dismiss such critiques, calling for maturity, pragmatism, or (insert other code-word for “please shut up” here) among such activists and organizers: even if they have serious critiques of white allies, the thinking goes, they should keep quiet for fear of giving ammunition to the real enemy (Republicans, et al.) But this tone-deaf response fundamentally misunderstands what these black critics are pointing to: that even among well-meaning whites, decisions are still being made according to a power calculus, and these activists are refusing to settle for any less than their fair share of power. They are being honest that it is this that they want: power, and nothing less. Real power. Decision-making power. They don’t simply want to place some well-meaning white in authority and trust that she or he will do the right thing. They don’t trust us (and why should they!?) Instead, they are saying: give us the power, and we will make the decision. Nothing less will do.

In its own way, this is a return to the stark but deeply insightful political analysis of the 60’s Black Power movement, a turn away from the emphasis on electoral politics and slow reform and progress that defined the civil rights movement from the 70’s through the early 00’s. Trust was given and was broken, not only by white politicians, but also by many black ones, who prioritized maintaining and expanding their own personal power over doing what was actually best for their constituents. And, of course, this is precisely the sort of behavior that Marxist and (in its own way) critical theory/Foucauldian analysis would predict. Everyone’s actions are, in some way or another, movements to maintain or expand power. To get what you want, you have to maintain and expand your own power. In that sense, BLM and critiques of white feminism are both products of serious reflections on the reality of politics.

But this brings us back to our original question: what can we expect the result of this realpolitik to actually be? Does this honest assessment of power have the potential to generate a truly liberatory politics? Or is it actually just the opposite, the codification of exploitative power? For if the above account is correct, then no one–not even the current leaders of the BLM–can ultimately be trusted. To the extent that they succeed and gain real power for themselves, they can be expected to act to maintain and expand that power itself, rather than necessarily wield it responsibly in the struggle for justice. This, of course, is not some particular critique of these individuals, but simply applying to them the very lessons they have learned from their own lives and the history of their communities, as catalogued above.

At this point, dear reader, you probably see the double-bind: recognition of the reality of how power operates simultaneously gives and takes away. It gives marginalized people the knowledge they need to see their own political, economic, and social conditions more clearly (i.e. dispels “false consciousness”) and to work to develop power with other marginalized people to overturn the structures that are crushing them. On the other hand, and by the very same token, it also predicts what will happen if they succeed: the same cynical use of power by whoever manages to lead such organizations of liberation.

I hope I have accurately diagnosed the problem, even if only in a very generalized and truncated way. But as for solutions to the problem, well…it’s at this point that my mind moves to further philosophical and theological speculation, precisely because I think what the above suggests is that politics is itself the very problem that liberatory political activity seeks to solve. But as Audre Lorde made clear: “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.” Applying this insight to political economy, having dis-covered the fact that our very lives and identities are both causes and effects of the way in which power is reproduced according to the structures of capital, can we expect that wielding power itself, if it is wielded in precisely the way that the owners of the means of production wield it, can lead to real liberation? I hope to have made clear in the above that I am not optimistic about such a program, no matter how “democratic” it seeks to be.

But, then what? Am I just contributing to the very cynicism I earlier seemed so wary of? I can’t really deny the claim, and as I said above, I have no concrete answer or solution to offer. But I can offer a more general, theoretical point: what is needed is a transformation of the way we think about ourselves, about power, and about each other. We need to exist in such a way that we see ourselves and each other differently, and–by the very definition of what I am saying–I can’t imagine what this other way of seeing self and other will be, because, of course, if I could imagine it, I would know it! I would already be occupying that epistemic perspective. I can’t imagine what it would be to not see myself a power-managing being wrestling with other power-managing beings.

Now, I am not suggesting that simply by thinking of ourselves differently, we can magically transform our material circumstances or social relations; rather I am saying that a condition of possibility for such a real transformation of the material and social is a new way of thinking. In short, we have to be able to imagine a different mode of relations in order to challenge the current one. But if it is true that our imaginations are themselves limited by the very social relations in which we currently find ourselves, then the double-bind explored above comes back with a vengeance. I have to imagine the possibility of a new set of social relations, which I can only do once I am already existentially defined by those very (as of yet non-existent) social relations(!)

At this point, Marxist theories of the Proletariat as the Subject of History, or the deeper Abrahamic narratives of the eschaton upon which the former is based, loom in my mind. But these, of course, have their own well-rehearsed limitations and failures. I want to end here, honestly, having charted the terrain and perhaps made a simplistic map. That I can’t see beyond the horizon of my own social location to new possibilities of a transformed power, a power that can be more than zero-sum, doesn’t mean that someone else necessarily won’t be able to. May my map, however poorly drawn, be of some help.

On the Duplicity of Clinton’s Anti-Racism

hillary-clinton-bring-it-on-mic-getty-640x480In many ways political campaigns are like pop songs–they need a hook, a central point, image, or mood that animates them and drives them forward. For Obama it was the image (if, ultimately, not the substance) of Hope and Change at at time when the economy was collapsing and America’s image abroad was thoroughly tarnished. For the Republicans in ’94, it was the “Contract with America“; Reagan struck a similar tone in 1984: “Morning in America“–both this and Gingrich’s Contract were meant to invoke a return to past stability and prosperity.

What do we have this time around? Interestingly enough, for the Clinton campaign, race has played a major role. In some ways, this is not surprising: her husband was famously the “first black president” and both Clintons have long polled well with with African-Americans (and at times other ethnic minorities). Furthermore, the GOP nominee is especially abrasive when it comes to race, even for a Republican: Donald Trump has made xenophobia against Mexican- and Central-Americans, as well as friction, to say the least, with black protesters, central to his campaign. With such an opponent, it makes sense that Clinton would try to play on the anxieties of people of color to boost electoral chances.

But the story of Clinton’s race-strategy isn’t as simple as this. Her campaign and its many proponents did not begin to portray her as the anti-racist candidate only after the primaries were over. Race featured as a major issue in the Democratic primaries, with the campaign itself and many in the media suggesting that much of the support for Bernie Sanders was itself animated by white anxiety or even outright racism. Unlike with Trump, this accusation lacked any real basis apart from some irresponsible fidgeting with polling data.


For one, Sanders had many people of color endorse him. Secondly, he did as well or better with young people of color as did Clinton; it was only older POC who supported Clinton by large margins. Third, and most substantively, Clinton is on record for supporting a range of policies and laws that disproportionately harm POC–the omnibus ’94 crime bill and the welfare “reform” act of ’96 being the most infamous.

All of this considered, it’s not obvious that Clinton should necessarily receive the mantle as the champion of minority causes. And yet she has positioned herself as just that, and, by and large, most of the major media outlets have not questioned her on this (though some smaller outlets have). Now, explaining this phenomenon en toto could fill volumes of books, and ultimately would require an expertise I lack. There are a host of questions around political messaging, grassroots leadership, demographic trends, etc. that would have to be asked and answered to really get at the heart of this seeming paradox. Nonetheless, there is one dimension of this situation that I think especially needs to be discussed both because of its immediate relevance and its structural impact.

In short, Clinton’s successful posturing as the POC champion is linked to the way that journalists tend to talk about racism in this country: racism is the result of the ignorance of poor white people (it should here be noted that poor white people are actually more likely to vote for Clinton in any event–a fact which only underscores the deceptiveness of this whole narrative). You see this narrative everywhere, and its has deep roots. It’s apparent in Harper Lee’s classic To Kill a Mockingbird. It’s clear in the coverage of Donald Trump’s support. It’s always in the background, framing the way we talk about race. Indeed, “racism” and “ignorance” almost always come as a package deal whenever the issue comes up in American discourse on these topics.

Now, undoubtedly, ignorance plays a central role in racist attitudes. But it does not play an exclusive one, and it’s all the things that are left out of this common analysis of racism that I think we need to talk about more.

First and foremost, racism-as-ignorance presents racism as a sort of massive and unfortunate accident, as if white supremacy just happened due to the lack of good schooling in the early colonies. And this presentation is intentional, because it fundamentally lets well-educated (and wealthy) whites off the hook. The actual fact of the matter–that white supremacy was and is a culture and ideology explicitly designed by wealthy and well-educated whites to justify slavery and the theft of land from Native Americans–is obscured by linking racism and ignorance in a linear and one-to-one fashion.

Another way of making this point is to say this: racism was developed, and encouraged, and it thrived, and became hegemonic, because it was profitable. The political-economic circumstances of North America were rather unique: a massive amount of arable land was available (though by no means uninhabited) for exploitation, but there was insufficient labor to grow cash crops (like cotton and tobacco). So a) the indigenous people needed to be either transformed into cheap laborers or removed and b) massive amounts of labor needed to be relocated to the colonies. Early efforts by European governments and land-owners generally employed actual purchases to achieve the first goal, and indentured servitude to achieve the second. But neither of these worked quickly, cheaply, or completely enough. White supremacy was the stone that killed both birds. It justified ever-more rapid and violent displacement of Native Americans as well as the permanent enslavement of black Africans as chattel–itself an innovation in the laws and concepts of enslavement.

All of this is to say that racism was generated not by ignorance, but by a savvy–but also demonic–understanding of how agriculture functioned as a business. Natives Americans and Africans alike were nothing more than resources to moved, employed, and destroyed, depending on the wishes of property-owners.

White supremacy, of course, also had another vital function: it provided the necessary wedge to keep working-class and peasant whites from organizing with Native Americans or Africans. And this wedge was not only of theoretical value, since the 17th century witnessed a number of uprisings in which people of all three groups united to attack landowners. In regards to the poor white population, white supremacy functions in the classic divide-and-conquer strategy: under this culture and ideology, even the poorest, least-respected white has a dignity not afforded to any non-white. Such a white person perceives himself as having a place, a status, in the system–and something to lose if it were challenged–and therefore will act to uphold it, even if doing so is inimical to his own long-term material interests.

This latter point does bring us back to the issue of ignorance: how poor white people were and still are tricked into supporting policies that are not helpful to them through the ideology of white supremacy. But to treat this situation as simple “ignorance” is to ignore what’s actually going on. To lay the blame for white supremacy on the ignorance of poor whites is to act as if these people could and should know better, but due to their own sloth or inattention, simply haven’t figured the truth out. In fact–and of course–these people are actively deceived, have been and are continually barraged by propaganda, explicit and implicit, to keep them ignorant. You might as well tie a handkerchief around someone’s eyes and blame them for being blind.

That’s not to say that those poor whites who accept racist arguments bear no  responsibility for their own beliefs, expression, and actions. But to lay the blame completely and exclusively on them simpliciter is deceptive in the extreme. And this brings us back to the concrete axis of this discussion: the Clintons have been more than happy to benefit from white supremacy when they could; they only posture against it when they think it will be to their advantage. Let’s not forget Bill’s (and Hillary’s) statements about “super-predators” in ’94, or the eagerness with which he executed Ricky Ray Rector in ’92. Likewise, let’s not overlook Hillary’s own eagerness to bomb POC in Libya, in Yemen, in Pakistan, in Palestine–as well as her own vocal support for the above-mentioned actions of her husband when he was in office.

If the Clintons’ opponents are overtly racist (as right now), they tack to the left, adopting the language of the civil rights movement and layering themselves with a thin veneer of concern. But if their opponents already sit to the left of them on such issues, they instead engage in dog-whistle politics, scaring middle-class whites into support of their centrist triangulation.

Now, supporters of Clinton’s are likely to counter at this point–well, actually, much earlier than this point–that none of this is relevant since Clinton is clearly preferable to Trump on any number of issues, race especially. And this is the frustrating wall that one always hits when criticizing the Democrats from the left: one’s opponents will argue with you until you actually bring up your evidence, at which point they switch to the with-us-or-against-us rhetorical tactics, suggesting that any criticism of Clinton is necessarily support for Trump.

But this is just pure nonsense. One might as well suggest (insert pithy remark on Godwin’s Law here) that to criticize Winston Churchill’s chauvinistic attitude towards the British Empire and his conservative values in domestic policy is somehow tantamount to supporting Hitler, because those two found themselves in conflict during World War II. But in truth, I can have criticisms of both without that criticism, in any way, shape, or form, implying any support for their rival. Of course it will be the case that my criticisms of Hitler are much more severe and firmly held than my criticisms of Churchill, but that doesn’t mean for a moment that I should refuse to criticize the latter.

And this is what is so frustrating about such discussions with Clinton-supporters. They see facts, if those facts reflect poorly on Clinton, as pro-Trump, and therefore inadmissible, despite their status as, well…factual.

Of course, as a leftist, my critique of Clinton is not meant to hurt her chances in this general election–I earnestly, if un-enthusiastically, hope she wins. Rather, the goal of such critiques from the left is to indict the whole set of assumptions which undergird the contemporary American political mainstream. When Clinton is the “leftist” option, we should know we are in trouble, and however much it might make sense for us to support Clinton in the short-term, we also need to be building consciousness to effect change in the long-term that pulls the Overton Window to the left.

Some Clinton-supporters may fundamentally agree, but then argue that we should reserve such conversations to non-election years so as to not damage the Democrats’ chances at election. The problem, of course, is that, first off, many Americans only really engage in political discourse in the months leading up to elections, and, secondly, in the off-years, the parties are focused on fund-raising and backroom deals. Election years may be the only time when leftists can get attention from both politically-disengaged citizens and the Democratic Party itself–the first because of the increased coverage of all things political at such times and the latter because of their anxiety over vote margins.

White supremacy is not some sui generis phenomenon that arises, like a fungus, from the woeful ignorance of poor white people. It has been and is an intentional strategy of propertied whites, a cultural technology (to use an academic term du jour) designed to justify horrific exploitation of people of color and, even at times, some poor whites as well. “Liberals” as well as “conservatives” have been happy to use it when it suits them, and critique it when it doesn’t. The Clinton campaign may have invited an undocumented woman and her daughter on-stage at the convention, but there’s no doubt that a Clinton administration will be deporting hundreds of thousands of such immigrants in 2017. Rhetoric is not substance. We need to see through this political posturing, recognize the real causes of exploitation and oppression, and organize to end them. Supporting Clinton may be a perfectly acceptable short-term tactical maneuver, but in the long-term, it is a strategic dead-end.

Displaced Critique: Ehrenreich’s Fumbled History of the Spirit

barbara-ehrenreich2I am a huge fan of the Baffler; it’s one of the few magazines I actually subscribe to, because I think its content is almost always worth materially supporting. It occupies a particular space in left-leaning journalism, critique, and opinion-writing, critical of capitalism but also frequently self-reflecting and doubting, it’s a magazine that encourages critical thought all around–certainly something to be celebrated and supported. I’m also a big fan of Barbara Ehrenreich’s work, especially her journalism on income inequality.

So I am slightly pained to find myself here preparing to heavily criticize Ehrenreich’s “Displaced Deities” in the most recent issue. It’s a piece so full of confused generalizations and self-confident nonsense that I’m not wholly sure where to begin. I suppose I might start by pointing out that it is a response of sorts to another piece in the same issue, Jackson Lear’s “Material Issue” (which itself is full of problems which I plan to address in this space at a future point). This issue of the Baffler is quickly shaping up to be my least favorite ever–and I haven’t yet finished it.

Ehrenreich hopes in this rather short article to propose an explanation as to how and why western thought has trended to what some have called the dis-enchantment of the universe. She proposes a timeline, beginning in our prehistoric past, when humans populated our world with innumerable spirits, a spiritual-religious position generally referred to as “animism”. Under animism, each individual material entity is seen as having a unique spirit, or at least the potential for one. Each rock, each tree, each stream might have a unique spiritual identity. From this perspective, Ehrenreich argues, the world was seen as rich with agency, vitality, and meaning.

Next, she says, many human societies gravitated towards polytheism, in which only a few dozen deities were recognized as real. Here, individual material entities were largely, if not completely, drained of their spiritual particularity. For the polytheist, if rocks possessed any sort of vital essence, it was under the aegis of a deity of rocks and stones–all rocks would be unified under a single spirit. Thus the spiritual world was delimited, constrained, constricted. From the polytheistic perspective, humans were a bit more lonely in the universe, Ehrenreich argues, and we were no longer able to feel ourselves in direct communion with our immediate surroundings.

Finally, Ehrenreich laments, the sterile age of monotheism descended upon humanity like a stultifying cloak. Now there was only one deity, abstract and distant. Agency and vitality were utterly drained from material reality, all of it being concentrated on a transcendent Being beyond the limits of materiality. For Ehrenreich, this sets the stage for the modern scientific (or scientistic) view of the world as as lifeless machine, utterly determined by the laws of science. She concludes that this view of life is inimical to political and environment justice, and yearns for a limited re-enchantment of the world, even as she admits that such a thing is not possible.

Now, in its simplest version, her conclusion, at least in its broadest outlines, seems to me quite valid and worth consideration. The idea that modern (and at least some varieties of post-modern) thought has generated for itself a perspective in which the world is vacated of any agency or subjectivity is well-founded, and I think Ehrenreich is absolutely correct to wonder about the ethical ramifications of such a view. But her attempt to lay the blame for this state of affairs on monotheism is historically, philosophically, and theologically incoherent.

It’s worth pointing out that, right at the outset of the article, Ehrenreich establishes her argument on a dubious premise: “One measure of the “vitality” of creation might be the number of gods or spirits thought to exist at a given time.” Now, she admits that any given criterion here would be difficult to justify, but she nonetheless carries on the remainder of her argument without even attempting to make such a justification. And this is crucial, and unfortunate, because this criterion largely amounts to equal parts question-begging and meaningless generalization.

The first concern we might have here is that Ehrenreich seems to be making her argument about quantity and not quality of life–or vitality, or subjectivity, or value. Indeed, she says as much: “It is the numbers, though, that concern us here.” But this surely results in an absurd conclusion, for if we are to judge the degree to which a spiritual or religious system recognizes vitality in the universe, then, according to Ehrenreich’s above criterion, we should prefer a system that multiplies spiritual entities endlessly. One spirit per object would rapidly be seen to be far too limiting. Why not ten, or a hundred? Why not claim that each material being has an infinitude of spiritual essences contained within it? (It’s worth pointing out that, accepting Ehrenreich’s criterion, Scientology is the best spiritual system on offer today, considering its claim that each human has many thousands of thetans associated with it–nevermind that it sees this diversity as the main problem to be solved).

But the other problem with her criterion is that the systems of thought she wants to criticize according to this criterion actually don’t violate it: polytheistic and montheistic religions simply don’t deny the existence of a multitude of spiritual beings in the world. The big change that occurs between animism and polytheism and then especially from polytheism to monotheism is not whether the world is populated by legions of spirits–animisms, polytheisms like (certain versions of) Hinduism, and monotheisms like Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and (other versions of) Hinduism all agree on this claim. The point of contention is just what the status or identity of these beings is.

That is to say–and here I will focus on monotheisms–monotheistic systems recognize a multitude of spiritual beings, but only one creator. All spiritual beings apart from capital-G God derive their existence from the will of God. But this doesn’t mean they don’t exist; in fact, understanding them as creatures necessarily assumes their existence. But Ehrenreich seems to confuse these two extremely different claims, arguing that monotheism functions as a basic denial of the existence of any spiritual vitality apart from a God who was little more than a distant abstraction. Of course, even a cursory glance at Jewish and Christian Scripture, or early Christian theology–replete as both are with discussions of angels and demons and even lowercase-g gods–will reveal this claim to be simply false.

And this brings us to a more obvious problem with Ehrenreich’s piece, apart from the basic conceptual confusion which seems to motivate it at it core. Ehrenreich frequently makes historical claims that are simply false, suggesting that she didn’t both to research any of her claims at all. For example, she claims that the Christian belief in the Trinity is an example of a “steady drift back towards polytheism”–a claim that would incense, of course, every major Christian theologian ever. Consider as well her claim that “the Reformation…downplayed the Trinity.” First off, it should be pointed out that the term “Reformation” covers a wide array of institutions and movements that were culturally and theologically diverse. Even the most generalized account would recognize four differing reforming movements in 16th century Western Christianity: Lutheranism, (the Calvinist) Reformers, the Anabaptists, and the English Reformation. So, right off the bat, one has to wonder which of these specific movements Ehrenreich means to refer.

But even if we overlook this woeful over-generalization, it should be plainly said that none of these four movements “downplayed the Trinity.” Now, there have been movements that arose within Christianity that did downplay, or even remove, Trinitarian thought from their doctrine–the Unitarians, of course, but also the Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Latter Day Saints (Mormons)–but none of these is “the Reformation”.

yhwhFor another, and perhaps the most serious, example, let’s shift back a bit chronologically: Ehrenreich repeats the claim, often found on internet message boards but much less often in any scholarly work on religious history, that there was a deity named “Yahweh” among the Canaanite pantheon whose adherents, at one point, insisted on worshiping to the exclusion of any other deity. The fact is that there is no evidence of any such deity among the pantheon, and indeed, “Yahweh” is not a name at all, but a specific transliteration into Latin characters of the tetragrammaton: YHWH, which is probably best translated as “He Who Is” or “He Who Will Be” or various other statements focused on Being in a more or less absolute sense. This “name” then is actually a sort of non-name, a proposition meant to point to God’s ineffability. The idea that there was a god named “Yahweh” (who was perhaps a storm- or war-god) among the Canaanite pantheon has no firm textual or archaeological basis.

Finally, it must be said that at precisely the point where I think Ehrenreich’s point begins to strike true–in critiquing the hyper-individualism of modern thought–she misses an opportunity to un- and re-cover a wealth of ethical and philosophical insights. This is because, and this is course not news to anyone who has read the Hebrew Bible or the New Testament, both texts, especially the prophetic books of the former (e.g. Amos, Isaiah, Jeremiah) are incredibly incisive works of ethical reasoning. If one is looking for a sound ethical basis for critiquing the borderline-solipsism of western philosophy since Descartes, one should see in Abrahamic montheism an ally. Instead, Ehrenreich engages in a lazy conflation.

All of this generalization and historical falsehood points to a basic conclusion: Barbara Ehrenreich just doesn’t know much about the history of religions, the philosophy of religion, or theology. And, of course, that’s totally fine. She’s not a scholar of religion, or a philosopher, or a theologian. She is not required to be an expert in any of this, or even vaguely educated on these topics, if she’d rather not be. Her contributions to journalism around class and income inequality are invaluable; pointing out that she probably has nothing really useful to say about religious history is sort of like saying that the Pope shouldn’t be performing open-heart surgery: it’s not necessarily a critique.

Unless, of course, the Pope decided to have a try at being a surgeon, without bothering to receive any training. Likewise, I would never take Ehrenreich to task for not knowing much about religious history, philosophy, or theology, except that she decided to submit an article on these topics for publication in a magazine. Most people are ignorant about most topics. So long as we don’t present ourselves having something intelligent to say about those topics, that’s perfectly fine–there’s far more knowledge in the world than there is lifespan to gain it. But having read this train-wreck of an article, I am left simply wishing that Ehrenreich–or the editors at the Baffler–had realized that she probably wasn’t the best author for this kind of piece. Again, that’s not to say I don’t want to read anything by her–in fact, just the opposite is true! I’d love to read more of her work on topics she has researched tirelessly and thought about for decades. Nickle and Dimed is a contemporary classic for good reason. Ehrenreich is an intelligent writer who has often focused on topics that need more focusing-on. But she’s just not qualified to write about the history of religion, and her article here will, I fear, do more to either confuse readers with no previous interest in the topic, or convince people to hold on to long-held un-analyzed and simplistic perspectives on religion, rather than encourage well-informed critical reflection on the issues at hand. Considering my respect for both Ehrenreich and the Baffler, this saddens me–and I hope in the future both endeavor to do better. (It should be pointed out that this hope may be misplaced in Ehrenreich’s case; much of the confused psuedo-theology on offer here is present in her most recent book, Living with a Wild God).