Calvinism, Capitalism, Chris Hedges, Conservatism, Consumerism, Evangelical Christianity, Evangelical Right, Evengelii Gaudium, Free Market Ideologues, Globalization, Gross Inequality, Idolatry of Money, Just Price, Karl Marx, New Testament, Newcomb’s Paradox, Political Corruption, Pope Francis, Predestination, Protestant and Calvinistic theology, Puritan Ethics, Rentier Class, Roman Catholic Pope, Rush Limbaugh, Strip Mall Religiosity, Tea Party, The Enlightenment, Thomas Aquinas, Usury
American Horror Story
You almost have to feel sorry for the conservatives, tea partiers, and the whole menagerie of free market evangelists these days. Even a casual perusal of AM talk radio, along with the buffoonery and gas baggery of the hard right news shows, one can see evidence of collapsing narratives at every turn.
Our disintegrating social conditions demand a plausible explanation from the right, and any such explanation, ideologically, must be sure to exonerate capitalism and the free market system.
This is becoming increasingly hard to do, as the shrill and contradictory defenses put forth become less satisfying every time the story is told. The story evolves, the audience reactions carefully polled, and the messaging refined to try and adapt to a low information audience growing more skeptical by the minute. There are many versions of the same story, depending on who tells it and more importantly who is paying for it, but for this discussion we are interested in the narrative brought forth by the evangelical right, and their socially conservative stable mates, or in general, the fire and brimstone crowd accounting for something near half of the American population.
The operating theory of this cohort centers for the most part on morality, or lack thereof, as principal cause for our society’s collapse.
Rush Limbaugh provides a pathetic but typical example of this type of addled logic:
The reason all of these stats on income inequality don’t work anymore is because the baseline for the statistical start is the fifties. Now, what was happening in the fifties? Well, in the fifties we had this thing called a nuclear family. There was a mother, a woman. There was a father, a man. They had babies by engaging in coitus. Leave It To Beaver, Ozzie and Harriet — hell, even the Beach Boys, for crying out loud! They were seemingly clean and pure as the wind driven snow.
Anyway, then after the coitus in the bedroom, then little Beaver was born and then Wally, and there were 2.8 of the kids and little picket fence and (if the dad got a vice presidency), there were two cars in the garage, and mom — the female. I’ve gotta make that distinction. The mother was a woman, the wife of a man. She stays home, raises the kid, fixes breakfast, sends ’em off to school, talks to the PTA. There was all that. There was one breadwinner, and there was an economic boom going on at the same time, following World War II.
Incomes in America rose dramatically. Then something happened. The left didn’t like that arrangement. That was just bad. They didn’t fit in. They didn’t like the idea of coitus in the bedroom. They didn’t like coitus with someone the opposite sex, necessarily. They didn’t even like coitus as a means of producing a kid. In fact, most times they didn’t even like the kid. They wanted to have the abortion. So what happened was that the nuclear family became under assault by “progressive” forces of modernization.
So today, you can’t compare family income today to what it was in the fifties when the boom time ’cause the family’s not the same. You’ve got single women, single-parent families, fewer nuclear families. Incomes have been divided. It doesn’t work.
The root of American ethics and morality stems in part from its heavily Protestant and Calvinistic theological underpinnings, which we might well reduce to the “Puritan” ethic. There are several key components of this behavior, tracing back to the late 17th century:
1. Personal sacrifice fulfilled by austere living conditions.
2. Self-sufficiency and disdain of charity for one’s self.
3. Obsessive work ethic fueled by the notion that idleness is evil.
Of course there are others, but we can use these generalizations to continue. In addition we should mention that Calvinism utilizes the principle of predestination, or predetermination, a fundamental departure from modern evangelical Christianity.
The rollup of these centuries old dogmatic beliefs is a programing bias towards moral explanations for when things go wrong, and strong lifestyle choices that dictate high moral standards when times are normal, in order to stave off any potential (future) fall from grace. The modern evangelical right has conflated this DNA to represent a distorted view of Christianity leaning heavily on Capitalism-which has fascist underpinnings in its ultimate embodiment.
In the Flat Fields
A gut pull drag on me
Into the chasm gaping we
Mirrors multy reflecting this
Between spunk stained sheet
And odorous whim
Calmer eye- flick- shudder- within
Assist me to walk away in sin
Where is the string that Theseus laid
Find me out this labyrinth place
I do get bored, I get bored
In the flat field
I get bored, I do get bored
In the flat field
What is often lost in our current infatuation with Enlightenment thinking is the degree to which the Pre-Enlightenment Church managed commerce, financing, and general market forces. In fact, the Church maintained an iron hand on issues such as usury, which was condemned and not distinguished from the “normal” practice of charging interest until the late 19th century.
In the age of Church hegemony, which lasted for centuries, it was considered immoral, and grossly so, to profit in any way through trade, charging interest, or commerce which resulted in a profit without actually performing any work. specifically, any rent seeking activity was forbidden.
Things that are considered commonplace today, such as raising prices for items needed in a disaster, (supply and demand) were thoroughly rejected by the Church and considered inconceivable during that time. Thomas Aquinas brought forth these concepts in the theory of Just Price in his Summa Theologica circa 1274 AD. Although this was clearly a Pre-Capitalist economy, much learning was put towards strict management of commerce dating back to the money changers being expelled from the temple in Biblical times- a theme oft repeated through the Dark Ages and well beyond.
For centuries, civilizations knew full well the dangers of markets and unconstrained commerce, and there is more than a passing connection between this realization and theology, present in virtually all religions throughout time.
This reality has been brought to the fore with the recent, and controversial, exhortation Evengelii Gaudium from the Roman Catholic Pope. Pundits have been zeroing in on the more provocative aspects after his release of the document last month. I’ve read all 244 pages of it and I’m here to tell you that he has pretty well burned down the Christian right’s moralistic narrative along with a good bit of the more mainstream conservative cohort.
For those who have dismissed previous Papal exhortations (as well as any other messaging, written or otherwise delivered) as irrelevant and hypocritical drivel, and I count myself on this list, the recent missive is a shocker. Let’s take a look as some selected passages:
We can no longer trust in the unseen forces and the invisible hand of the market. Growth in justice requires more than economic growth, while presupposing such growth: it requires decisions, programmers, mechanisms and processes specifically geared to a better distribution of income, the creation of sources of employment and an integral promotion of the poor which goes beyond a simple welfare mentality. I am far from proposing an irresponsible populism, but the economy can no longer turn to remedies that are a new poison, such as attempting to increase profits by reducing the work force and thereby adding to the ranks of the excluded.
The need to resolve the structural causes of poverty cannot be delayed, not only for the pragmatic reason of its urgency for the good order of society, but because society needs to be cured of a sickness which is weakening and frustrating it, and which can only lead to new crises. Welfare projects, which meet certain urgent needs, should be considered merely temporary responses. As long as the problems of the poor are not radically resolved by rejecting the absolute autonomy of markets and financial speculation and by attacking the structural causes of inequality,no solution will be found for the world’s problems or, for that matter, to any problems. Inequality is the root of social ills.
Now this passage in particular stands out, and is a recurring theme throughout the document. Inequality is the root of all social ills. Not moral misbehavior. Rush Limbaugh is positively foaming at the mouth with this conclusion. You see, the story as told has to exonerate Capitalism, so the explanatory focus is redirected to not just suggest, but to demand that the moral lapses of the populace are the sole causality of a world gone bad.
After all, the world was given to us with abundance, work hard, maintain high moral standards, and its abundance will never run out. No limits to resources, no environmental disasters, no exploitation, nothing but paradise, unless of course you take a bite of that apple.
Let’s go on:
Sometimes we prove hard of heart and mind; we are forgetful, distracted and carried away by the limitless possibilities for consumption and distraction offered by contemporary society. This leads to a kind of alienation at every level, for “a society becomes alienated when its forms of social organization, production and consumption make it more difficult to offer the gift of self and to establish solidarity between people.
Karl is that you?
Genuine forms of popular religiosity are incarnate, since they are born of the incarnation of Christian faith in popular culture. For this reason they entail a personal relationship, not with vague spiritual energies or powers, but with God, with Christ, with Mary, with the saints. These devotions are fleshy, they have a face. They are capable of fostering relationships and not just enabling escapism. In other parts of our society, we see the growing attraction to various forms of a “spirituality of well-being” divorced from any community life, or to a “theology of prosperity” detached from responsibility for our brothers and sisters, or to depersonalized experiences which are nothing more than a form of self-centredness.
This would seem to be a dig at modern “strip mall religiosity” as it is now de rigueur to have non denominational churches in strip malls, repurposed industrial buildings, etc, all which have superficial distorted messaging, often pronouncing how wealth is your divine right.
Today’s economic mechanisms promote inordinate consumption, yet it is evident that unbridled consumerism combined with inequality proves doubly damaging to the social fabric. Inequality eventually engenders a violence which recourse to arms cannot and never will be able to resolve. It serves only to offer false hopes to those clamouring for heightened security, even though nowadays we know that weapons and violence, rather than providing solutions, create new and more serious conflicts. Some simply content themselves with blaming the poor and the poorer countries themselves for their troubles; indulging in unwarranted generalizations, they claim that the solution is an “education” that would tranquilize them, making them tame and harmless. All this becomes even more exasperating for the marginalized in the light of the widespread and deeply rooted corruption found in many countries – in their governments, businesses and institutions – whatever the political ideology of their leaders.
Today in many places we hear a call for greater security. But until exclusion and inequality in society and between peoples are reversed, it will be impossible to eliminate violence. The poor and the poorer peoples are accused of violence, yet without equal opportunities the different forms of aggression and conflict will find a fertile terrain for growth and eventually explode. When a society – whether local, national or global – is willing to leave a part of itself on the fringes, no political programmes or resources spent on law enforcement or surveillance systems can indefinitely guarantee tranquility. This is not the case simply because inequality provokes a violent reaction from those excluded from the system, but because the socioeconomic system is unjust at its root. Just as goodness tends to spread, the toleration of evil, which is injustice, tends to expand its baneful influence and quietly to undermine any political and social system, no matter how solid it may appear. If every action has its consequences, an evil embedded in the structures of a society has a constant potential for disintegration and death. It is evil crystallized in unjust social structures, which cannot be the basis of hope for a better future. We are far from the so-called “end of history”, since the conditions for a sustainable and peaceful development have not yet been adequately articulated and realized.
So now we get to the money shot:
While the earnings of a minority are growing exponentially, so too is the gap separating the majority from the prosperity enjoyed by those happy few. This imbalance is the result of ideologies which defend the absolute autonomy of the marketplace and financial speculation. Consequently, they reject the right of states, charged with vigilance for the common good, to exercise any form of control. A new tyranny is thus born, invisible and often virtual, which unilaterally and relentlessly imposes its own laws and rules. Debt and the accumulation of interest also make it difficult for countries to realize the potential of their own economies and keep citizens from enjoying their real purchasing power. To all this we can add widespread corruption and self-serving tax evasion, which have taken on worldwide dimensions. The thirst for power and possessions knows no limits. In this system, which tends to devour everything which stands in the way of increased profits, whatever is fragile, like the environment, is defenseless before the interests of a deified market, which become the only rule.
One cause of this situation is found in our relationship with money, since we calmly accept its dominion over ourselves and our societies. The current financial crisis can make us overlook the fact that it originated in a profound human crisis: the denial of the primacy of the human person! We have created new idols. The worship of the ancient golden calf (cf. Ex 32:1-35) has returned in a new and ruthless guise in the idolatry of money and the dictatorship of an impersonal economy lacking a truly human purpose. The worldwide crisis affecting finance and the economy lays bare their imbalances and, above all, their lack of real concern for human beings; man is reduced to one of his needs alone: consumption.
In this context, some people continue to defend trickle-down theories which assume that economic growth, encouraged by a free market, will inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice and inclusiveness in the world. This opinion, which has never been confirmed by the facts, expresses a crude and naïve trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power and in the socialized workings of the prevailing economic system. Meanwhile, the excluded are still waiting. To sustain a lifestyle which excludes others, or to sustain enthusiasm for that selfish ideal, a globalization of indifference has developed. Almost without being aware of it, we end up being incapable of feeling compassion at the outcry of the poor, weeping for other people’s pain, and feeling a need to help them, as though all this were someone else’s responsibility and not our own. The culture of prosperity deadens us; we are thrilled if the market offers us something new to purchase. In the meantime all those lives stunted for lack of opportunity seem a mere spectacle; they fail to move us.
Just as the commandment “Thou shalt not kill” sets a clear limit in order to safeguard the value of human life, today we also have to say “thou shalt not” to an economy of exclusion and inequality. Such an economy kills. How can it be that it is not a news item when an elderly homeless person dies of exposure, but it is news when the stock market loses two points? This is a case of exclusion. Can we continue to stand by when food is thrown away while people are starving? This is a case of inequality. Today everything comes under the laws of competition and the survival of the fittest, where the powerful feed upon the powerless. As a consequence, masses of people find themselves excluded and marginalized: without work, without possibilities, without any means of escape.
Human beings are themselves considered consumer goods to be used and then discarded. We have created a “throw away” culture which is now spreading. It is no longer simply about exploitation and oppression, but something new. Exclusion ultimately has to do with what it means to be a part of the society in which we live; those excluded are no longer society’s underside or its fringes or its disenfranchised – they are no longer even a part of it. The excluded are not the “exploited” but the outcast, the “leftovers.
So this goes on in a similar vein, and this position does not bode well for the conservative narrative. We see capitalism explicitly blamed for inequality, and in turn inequality for societies ills, a disturbing cause and effect that is disruptive to the American status quo. Coming from a supposedly impartial and world recognized voice of moralistic guidance, this is particularly damning.
We have to ask given the (millennial) history of precisely just this set of teachings, where the hell have these people been for the last 400 years? Mired in child molestation cases, and other aspects of immeasurable hypocrisy, that’s where. Typically dispensing irrelevant teachings to a disinterested world, met with a yawn and the clink of coins in the Sunday collections basket, the cafeteria Catholics and faithful parishioners buy their penance on the free market of theology, shopping for workable edicts and morals they can live with, and leaving aside things that might prove troublesome.
And the Church, let’s not (yet) get all misty eyed that the new Pope has found his voice, that the Holy See can finally see after 400 years of Post Enlightenment blindness, because if we learned anything in the Dark Ages we learned the Church was an authoritarian, totalitarian institution, honed to perfection after centuries of practice, misappropriating Christianic themes in furtherance of its own power and hegemony. Restricting knowledge, capturing books, and distorting, twisting and interpreting discovery with a certain malleability of facts, and containing science to maintain its omnipotence.
It is worth noting that at its core, the Church operates as a corporatist entity, with significant focus on profits itself, poisoned if you will, by the very same sickness it chastises. So we might well leave the discussion here, hopeful that the new Papal vision will at least upset some belief systems, and file this under the category of good ideas for the wrong reasons, and move on to other superficial topics. Except that we have 2000 years of history here, history that resonates with this same message, repeated in many ways over and over again. We have a seminal event in the Enlightenment, which purported to shut down the fiefdoms, mysticism and fanciful explanations, replacing it with science and reason to wrest the power and authority from cloistered theocrats.
And this has failed.
None of the Post Enlightenment theories of political economy have provided satisfactory, sustainable solutions despite 400 years of trying. By most measures, they are in fact worse. The current fashionable trend to double down on technology as means of providing solutions is not working, and critical thinkers can see these measures are leading to cascading failure modes, with each technological “breakthrough” creating new and unanticipated failures of their own, with insufficient study as to unanticipated outcomes.
I had occasion last month to attend a talk by Chris Hedges, the first time I have heard him in person. The venue was in Santa Monica in a historic building now owned by the Women’s Club, a depression era wood structure with a whitewashed paint job, faintly reminiscent of a church. The venue was packed to the rafters, with the upstairs balcony fairly bulging under the weight of way more people wanting to see Hedges than the organizers anticipated. Everyone finally got in to the standing room only crowd. Hedges has found his voice, he is articulate in person, but powerful, vocally projecting in a way I’ve not seen him do in taped interviews where he seems more reflective and almost mournful. His message is a powerful force and it is clear his upbringing under a Presbyterian minister (his father) and his education in seminary converge to forge his style and messaging. The emotion and power left me somewhat stunned, I wasn’t prepared for the electricity in the room and palpable agitation of the attendees who know full well the truth in his message.
It might seem that these events conspire to ordain a germ of an idea, a small, kindled spark that suggests, almost horrifically, that the assemblage of the capitalist mode of production is not a just theory of economics or political economy. It is not merely an exchange of commodities or a clever and oblique system of exploitation. It is not just a mechanism for conflicting class structure or means for the landed nobility to hold down the masses.
It is a religion, a theology so all consuming that it transcends borders, boundaries, catechism and Koran. It extends to every denomination, to every corner of the earth with a deification and worship of commerce and consumption so deeply ingrained that there is no inoculation once infected. Its participants trapped in a purgatory analogous to opium dens, transient pleasure of consumption and accumulation, but in the 19th century opium dens most knew to advise a friend to retrieve them after several hours (or days) as they would be unable- and unwilling- to leave on their own.
In this version, no one is coming to get you out, there is no getting out. No one is free from the addictive vapors of consumption.
a) First of all because, as we have seen, capitalism, by deﬁning itself as the natural and necessary form of the modern economy, does not admit any diﬀerent future, any way out, any alternative. Its force is, writes Weber, ‘irresistible’, and it presents itself as an inevitable fate.
b) The system reduces the vast majority of humanity to ‘damned of the earth’ who cannot hope for divine salvation, since their economic failure is the sign that they are excluded from God’s grace. Guilty for their own fate, they have no hope of redemption. The God of the capitalist religion, money, has no pity for those who have no money . . .
c) Capitalism is ‘the ruin of being’, it replaces being with having, human qualities with commodiﬁed quantities, human relations with monetary ones, moral or cultural values with the only value that counts, money.
d) Since humanity’s ‘guilt’ – its indebtedness towards Capital – is permanent and growing, no hope of expiation is permitted. The capitalist constantly needs to grow and expand his capital if he does not wish to be crushed by his competitors, and the poor must borrow more and more money to pay their debts.
e) According to the religion of Capital, the only salvation consists in the intensiﬁcation of the system, in capitalist expansion, in the accumulation of more and more commodities; but this ‘remedy’ results only in the aggravation of despair.
So in other words, the will of God is substituted by the will of the market. The Saints of Capitalism are not represented by iconography in dusty church alcoves, rendered in plaster bas relief, illuminated by flickering votive candles aligned in perfectly concentric rows, no, these saints are reproduced on our paper money, mass produced by photoengraved plates and scaled to feel, to touch, with every transaction to reacquaint and remind the heathen that this is the portal to eternal salvation.
Our cathedrals are not limestone structures of centuries production, flying buttresses soaring gracefully to the heavens, constructed of a scale to intimidate and instill perspective of scale between creator and subject, no these cathedrals are chrome and glass, with banal and endless rows of cubicles for the disciples to prosthelytize to the unwashed masses, “lift yourself, take our hand and elevate yourself to the glory of all the money is and can be”.
Consume or be consumed, the entire New Testament may be reinterpreted not as a warning of end times, not as a statement of worldly evangelism, but each parable and writing a searing indictment and prophetic warning of a planet destroying insidious religion about to rise. The Original Sin may well be reduced to being born into a world which requires you to sell your labor power for survival, the baptism a cleansing in preparation of a lifelong participation in commodity exchange- labor for goods.
There is no expiation in the religion of Capitalism, it is game theory analogous to Newcomb’s Paradox, a contrivance where an omniscient being gives you two choices, one of which is already made for you, and analyzes your strategy for utility maximization when you know that your choice is already predetermined- and you cannot change the outcome.
Here’s hoping for the ninth Crusade.