Making Sense of Freedom

freedom-sign“Freedom” is a word beloved by Americans, both left and right, liberal and conservative. No one in this country would ever explain their own political philosophy by saying, “basically, I’m against freedom.” Even those who wish to control others always present it as a mode of liberation. Everyone argues that they (and generally, they alone) are struggling against a sea of nefarious opponents to deliver true freedom to the world. But if that’s the case, why are we still struggling? If everyone agrees that freedom is good, the good, why haven’t we achieved it? If everyone is for freedom, then no one can be against it–so why is it always receding off into the distance?

And furthermore, isn’t this a rather strange situation, that everyone would agree–in word word, if rarely in deed–that freedom is the proper goal of all human political and economic activity? How is it that Republicans, Democrats, Greens, Libertarians, Marxists, and even Fascists all alike present their programs as struggles for freedom?

Perhaps this is only branding? That is: perhaps only one of these groups is really fighting for true freedom, but the other groups, having seen how popular it is, chose to parrot this in their PR? Even so, such a universal respect for something that so often seems controversial is still hard to explain. Everyone loves freedom, and everyone presents their opponents as the enemies of freedom. What’s going on here?

Considering how many different political groups all champion freedom, it isn’t surprising to find that they each understand the concept somewhat differently. What is surprising is how much continuity there nonetheless is between these various understandings of human freedom. Such a curious situation demands further attention, yet our enthusiasm for freedom has tended to result in less, not more, intellectual scrutiny towards the concept: when everyone agrees about something, it’s not likely to get discussed much. How often do we ramble on and on about how important breathing is?

The fact that these contradictions about freedom simultaneously sit right at the apex of our political culture and yet are simultaneously almost never explored suggests that ideology is at work here. Though in common English, the word “ideology” is generally synonymous with “a system of political and economic ideas”, in certain corners of the social sciences, the word has taken on a more technical meaning. In this sense, an ideology is an existent social system–that is to say, it’s not just a set of ideas, but is actually the social structure that truly pertains in the present–that actively seeks to obscure itself. Ideologies are social systems that maintain their dominance, at least in part, by hiding from plain view.

This may seem odd, but an example can flesh this out. Perhaps that most obvious and oft-repeated one is the claim by defenders of laissez-faire economics that unfettered capitalism is the natural method of allocating scarce resources. Note that word, “natural”. Using this word makes this particular politico-economic system seem to be the given state of affairs–as if if no one chose it, no one in particular benefits from it, and as if no alternatives are really possible. Presenting the current social structure as “natural” is an effective rhetorical tactic. Anyone who argues against such a structure can easily be denounced as uneducated, unrealistic, or immature. Once a given social system is presented–and received by the public–as “natural”, it becomes much harder to challenge. After all, how many political movements oppose gravity? If a system can present itself as inevitable as gravity, it will be nearly impossible to displace.

This is how ideologies function. They press certain contingent social structures onto populations, and then cover their own tracks, convincing a majority of the people living under them that they are natural, irreversible, absolute. And, of course, it’s not only defenders of capitalism that are guilty of this maneuver. Most Marxists argue that only they have a political program developed from an objective understanding of the science of human history; likewise, many religious institutions try to claim that only their view of spirituality reflects human, natural, and divine realities as they truly are.

But what does any of this have to do with the ubiquity–and simultaneous vagueness–of the word “freedom” in western political discourse?

Broadly speaking, especially in the West, “freedom” always has two aspects: it is freedom of the individual, and it is negative freedom. To say that we westerners celebrate “negative” freedom is just to say that we understand freedom as freedom from other people. Freedom of religion means that others can neither prevent nor require my religious practice. Likewise, freedom of speech means that the state may not prevent me from speaking my mind. And this leads to the other aspect: such freedom is always of the individual: it is the individual who can be free, it is the individual who strives to be free. Individuals strive to be free of the state, of natural events, and of other individuals.

One can characterize this understanding of freedom as ideological because it forecloses on other possible understandings of freedom without ever even alluding to the fact that such alternate view of freedom are even possible. During the Cold War, however, Eastern Bloc states made a point of arguing for a “positive” conception of freedom: freedom to certain things, rather than only freedom from certain people or institutions: freedom to work, freedom to health care, freedom to meaningful social interaction, etc.

This critique of a purely negative conception of freedom is therefore not unheard of, even if it is rare in the west and, indeed, utterly absent in any mainstream political discourse. But the second dimension of the ideology of freedom–that freedom is always freedom of the individual, generally receives less attention. Again, “orthodox” Marxist theory has generally critiqued this assumption as well, though perhaps less consistently, and certainly less successfully. By and large, especially since the fall of the Soviet Union, most western Marxists have attempted to cast themselves in language that is more friendly to liberal conceptions of freedom (that is, the one we have been discussing above). In fact, this “softer” Marxism runs back into the pre-World War II days, when some intellectual Marxists attempted to present a more humanistic approach to Marxist theory (e.g. Walter Benjamin).

So even the primary pole of opposition to liberal capitalist hegemony has had a hard time sustaining the idea of freedom outside the confines of the individual. And the fact that this dimension of the ideology of freedom has been harder to name and counter makes a lot of sense–opposing a purely negative conception of freedom is easy to do because modern people understand the need for things like work, medical care, and education, and so the idea that freedom could be “for” as much as “from” is easy to grasp, even if it ends up having little actual political traction. But individualism is a much harder nut to crack. The very way in which most modern people understand themselves is through the lens of individuality. We see ourselves, separate people, as the subjects and agents of existence. This extends well beyond the realm of politics. In our romantic lives, in our spiritual lives, in our day-to-day activities, western culture is, through and through, a culture of individual experience and identity. The watchword of the 21st century is, I think, “authenticity”. Authenticity, not to one’s region, or ethnicity, or history, or religion–but to self.

Political projects are understood to be good or bad to the extent that they maximize the potential for individuals to act authentically. But is this the only way to characterize freedom? Is it possible to have a conception of freedom that is social, rather than individual? Of course, the idea of freedom for certain groups is not new–nationalists constantly decry the restrictions on their nations–but this attitude towards freedom is still fundamentally anti-social; that is to say: zero sum. One nation’s freedom necessarily means the loss of rights, property, or power on the part of some other nation.

A truly social understanding of freedom would seek to create social institutions that free people for one another, not just from one another. Such an understanding of freedom would be much harder to articulate than those who have argued for a positive understanding of freedom alongside the negative, because it would require a completely new mode of subjectivity–we would have to know ourselves, and each other, in a new and different way, because the very way in which we understand self and other today already has inscribed in it the zero sum competition of individual against individual. The possibility of freedom with one another has already been foreclosed upon by the reality of our social relations. Only able to witness, and imagine, freedom from one another, we reproduce these social relations in our constant struggle to achieve more freedom for ourselves at the expense of others. We can’t imagine being anyone other than who we are–even if  who we are now is profoundly unfree.

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What exactly this kind of social, rather than individual, freedom could mean is not–and, I think, at this time, cannot–be clear. And this is precisely because any change in the understanding of freedom (since this concept is so essential to the very way we understand ourselves, our identities, and the societies in which we live) would result in a completely different way of thinking. At this stage, I think it is only possible to discuss the limits of the current structure of our subjectivity, to continue to whittle away at its foundations. The answer is still well over the horizon–but we can ask the question today.

An example will be illustrative. When it comes to discussions of racial justice, many on the progressive Left are fond of saying that white supremacy is bad for white people as well as for people of color, and that therefore the struggle for racial justice is something that everyone should be able to get behind. Whatever one thinks about the factuality of this claim, it’s clear that the goal of this kind of rhetoric is to produce and maintain a sense of solidarity–that term so much-beloved (and oft-over-used) by leftists. To the extent, the thinking goes, that we can get white people to believe that anti-racist agitation, legislation, and direct action is good for them as well as for their non-white neighbors, we reduce the obstacles to achieving racial justice.

So far as it goes, of course, this makes sense. But there’s a problem: what if many white people realize that anti-racism won’t always benefit them, or that it will benefit them in some ways while harming them in others? Or that it will benefit them in the long-term, but not in the short-term? The problem is that this claim about the universal benefits of racial justice stumbles over the gritty details of our actual social existence. It would be ridiculous to deny that at least some white people benefit some of the time in concrete ways from white supremacy. Indeed, that’s the whole point of deploying the term “white privilege”: white supremacy gives white people real and desired advantages. So which is it? Is white supremacy ultimately a social structure that gives real, material advantage to white people? Or is it an obstacle to the welfare of all people–including white people–and therefore something that we can easily develop solidarity in resistance to?

Of course, I have oversimplified the reality of white supremacy as an existent social structure. The fact of the matter is that some white people benefit far more from others, and that white people in general both benefit in some ways and pay in others. It’s not possible to easily quantify the cost/benefit impact of white supremacy on white people in general or even on specific white individuals. This is especially true for white working-class people, for whom white supremacy provides both benefits–more likelihood of being hired, generally higher wages, much less chance of violence from police, etc.–but also real costs, since a working class divided by race will generate–and very clearly has generated–lower wages, fewer benefits, and less occupational security for all working people as a whole. And of course, this is the perverse genius of racism’s appeal to white workers in the US: it both acts to discipline and impoverish them while simultaneously drafting them to uphold, through political violence against their fellow workers (of color), the very system that limits their political possibilities.

Considering the complex nature of the situation makes it clear that, whatever we would like to believe, simply stating that racism hurts white people and therefore white people should be eager to combat it is imprecise at best, and disingenuous at worst. A more honest call to racial justice would take a different course, especially if one were speaking to middle-class or upper-class whites, whose benefiting from white supremacy is almost completely unalloyed by class costs: “white supremacy helps you, but you should resist it anyway.”

But there is an obvious question that they would raise here: “why should I?” And here our survey of the concept of freedom above is essential. To the extent that we understood the only proper goal of a socio-political system to increase the autonomy of individuals to act in their own interest–so long as this is what we mean by “freedom”–it’s clearly nonsensical to call on (especially middle- and upper-class)  white people to resist white supremacy. They are clearly, and materially, benefiting from the structures of racism. And it must be noted that while poor and working-class whites may actually be able to benefit more clearly from an end to white supremacy in some ways, many of them nonetheless identify so strongly with the accepted notion of freedom that they will respond to calls for racial justice as if they were solidly middle-class: the American “poor see themselves not as an exploited proletariat, but as temporarily embarrassed millionaires“.  If politics is nothing more than the competition of individuals to maximize their own autonomy and access to property, why would any white individual choose to dismantle such an effective tool as white supremacy?

It is this question, I think, that can function as  crowbar at the site of the contradictions that must be explored here. Most Americans seem to want to both understand themselves as individual political actors and cherish their individual freedom to live their lives unfettered by others but also want to see themselves as moral beings who act in ethically consistent ways. But these two visions of human life are mutually exclusive. To the extent that one believes individual humans to have an absolute right to individual freedom, one cannot maintain the idea that humans might have an ethical responsibility to care for one another. One could, of course, choose, as an individual, to try and live up to some set of moral standards for a more or less arbitrary reason, but such a moral ethics would have no social, political, or philosophical force behind it. It would be a lifestyle choice, not a call to justice.

So, for progressives, leftists, and radicals, which is it? Do we understand ourselves primarily as individuals seeking unfettered freedom of action? If so, it’s hard to see how we can avoid endorsing a more-or-less libertarian view of government action, even if we adopt socially liberal attitudes towards sexuality, drug use, and entertainment along with our laissez-faire economics. Or, do we find ourselves committed to a set of ethical claims about our responsibility to care for each other? In this case, we have a strong intellectual basis in arguing for a more-or-less socialist mode of government, in which individuals sacrifice some degree of arbitrary autonomy in order to create a more just and more equitable society.

If we choose this latter option, though, we will need to think long and hard about what we mean when we say we are fighting for freedom, since the meaning that that word generally has in most of its contemporary uses will, I hope to have shown above, no longer be consistent with our political vision. This is not to say that Freedom and Justice are somehow mutually exclusive in an absolute sense, but rather that this particular understanding of freedom–which is the dominant and default one–is not consistent with our understanding of, and commitments to, social and economic justice. I think there can be a fruitful and mutually-reinforcing intersection of these two ideas as they inform our political and social vision of the future–but I don’t think we’ve arrived at that intersection yet. Instead, we find often find ourselves trying to talk out of both sides of our mouths, as discussed above in reference to leftist discourse around white supremacy.

If we honestly believe that combating white supremacy will materially harm at least some white people (and indeed, all white people in at least some ways for at least some period of time) we should be honest about this and then still call for whites to fight for justice. But this will involve developing a political discourse that sees freedom as one good among many others, rather than the absolute and only political good. The difficulty is that, as I have suggested throughout this essay, most of the time, American political discourse has functioned according to a freedom-first or indeed freedom-only paradigm. All of this is to say that if we want to organize people around social and economic justice, we cannot simply try to insert our content into the form of political discourse that currently exists. If I may be allowed a short Biblical reference: we cannot put new wine into old wine skins. Our politics is not just a variation of liberal democracy. We are not proposing some tweaks of and tinkering to capitalism. We are calling for a radically different mode of social, political, and economic organization. We are calling not just for some new political content, but wholly new forms of political life. For a completely different way for individuals to relate to one another. We cannot pretend that such a radical vision can be communicated with the political terms and assumptions of the very system we find so problematic–and yet, generally speaking, this is what we do.

This means that struggling against capitalism will mean imagining a different way not only of working, voting, and allocating resources, but a different way of thinking and indeed of existing as social creatures. Above all else, we need a completely new discourse, a new set of fundamental political terms to build our discussions on. The trouble is that the left in the US seems, more often than not, to simply try and radicalize the terms and assumptions of centrist liberalism, as if one can accept the need for socialism if one simply reads Paul Krugman, and then multiplies his position by ten. But this just isn’t the case. The very basis for what constitutes good and just governance for liberals is completely different than for socialists.

Part of what this means is that we need to be as focused on “theory” as on “action” (though dividing these two things as if they are not mutually interdependent is itself, I think, a faulty mode of thinking). Imagination must be seen as a critical political tool. We have to be able to imagine different ways of living together before we can be expected to work towards them; we cannot arrive at our destination if we have no idea where we are going. Much of what passes for “radical” thought today is, I think, little more than metastasized liberalism. Calls for “social justice” too often simply mask attempts to gain leverage within the structures of capitalist decision-making, rather than attempts to dismantle this system. We have to recognize the limits not only of the outcomes of the systems we are struggling against, but also the conceptual and linguistic foundations upon which those systems are built.

As I admitted above, I will not pretend to have any idea of exactly what structures of thought can replace those which we are struggling to break free from. Many leftists will attempt to build upon the work of Marxist thought; religious progressives and radicals may prefer to build on their own spiritual traditions for clues on how to build new modes of subjectivity. Anarchists and syndicalists will doubtless offer their own critiques (though the essential dimension of individual freedom for this lineage of radical thought must, I think, be admitted and addressed). I don’t have the answer, but I am convinced that we must incessantly, loudly, and seriously ask these questions about the very foundations of our political ethics if we want to have any idea of how to move forward.

True Religious Extremism: A Response to Giles Fraser

gilesFraser.jpgGiles Fraser recently published a short opinion piece at the Guardian arguing that the problem with religiously-motivated terrorism is not that such terrorists–like the man who drove a truck into crowds on Bastille Day this past summer in Nice, France–are too religious, but that in fact they are not religious enough. Fraser goes on to argue an important theological point:

It’s a very basic point. The truth of God’s existence does not depend on me. It does not depend on me filling my church with believers at midnight mass. Nor does it depend on me (or anyone else) winning or losing arguments about God’s existence on Twitter. God is not like a political party that lives or dies on its support or lack of it.

Fraser is reiterating a fundamental theological doctrine central to the Abrahamic faiths: that of God’s utter sovereignty. God creates but is not created. God upholds, but is upheld by nothing except God’s own self. God defines without being defined. Fraser’s argument is simple: those of us who profess religious faith should be “more extreme” in our total reliance on God–and this should lead to less terrorism and less religious coercion rather than more. The more we depend on God, he argues, the less we will try to act as God’s guardians or agents. The more secure we are in our faith in God, a faith based on God’s solidity and not our own confidence or energy, the less anxious we will feel, the less need we will have to assert our beliefs on others.

To some extent, this strikes me as a good argument. Certainly, I will always applaud any public declaration of this kind of theology. Asserting the super-ontic, as it were, primacy and security of God over and above the material world or human thought and activity is something we need more of, and it’s refreshing to find this kind of discourse in the Guardian, which is not known as a place one goes for metaphysical subtlety (this is of course not a critique, as the Guardian is a newspaper generally focused on current events).

And yet, I have to say I have a problem with Fraser’s argument. While it may be the case that we believers in God need not defend God’s being or honor in public, and that we need to trust God more and our own actions less, I worry that, taken on its face, his argument could lead to a sort of religious quietism: trusting in the goodness of God while the world burns.

But this kind of extreme, to borrow Fraser’s own diction, understanding of God’s sovereignty and power is, in fact, un-Scriptural. It is certainly true that the Bible–both the Hebrew Bible and the much shorter Christian New Testament–frequently acclaim God’s ineffability, power, and utter sovereignty, yet both texts also make it clear that faith must always mean action. It’s true that God doesn’t need us in order to be Real, in order to be God. But! God does call us to action, to serve a broken a world, to heal wounded people, to speak truth in a time of falsehood. God may not need us, but God’s world does.

Perhaps the clearest expression of this is in the famous passage of the goats and the sheep in Matthew 25:31-46. I quote it here at length and encourage you to read it, even if it is familiar to you:

‘When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. Then the king will say to those at his right hand, “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?” And the king will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” Then he will say to those at his left hand, “You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.” Then they also will answer, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?” Then he will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.” And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.’

It is easy to miss the central thrust of this passage by either dwelling on the implicit threat contained in this passage, or by snickering over the comparison of Christ’s followers to “sheep”. But note the main point Jesus is making: those who care for those in need have already entered ‘the Kingdom’, they are already doing the work of building the just and peaceful reign of God in the world. Meanwhile, those who profess faith while refusing to live that faith are proving themselves to be obstacles to God’s work, God’s plan for a creation imbued with justice and love.

jesuscleansesthetempleThat is to say: “extreme faith”, as Fraser calls us to have, should not lead us to disengage from politics, social action, or advocacy for what we hold to be true or right. This point can be summarized even more succinctly by John 14:15–“If you love me, keep my commandments.” One who professes faith in a sovereign God but refuses to endeavor to live a renewed life of love in light of that faith, does not really have faith at all. Or, as St. James put it, much to Martin Luther’s later chagrin: “Faith without works is dead.” (James 2:17).

Thus, I worry that Fraser has oversimplified what it would mean to live an “extreme” faith. I agree wholly with him that those who kill, exploit, enslave, or disregard others in the name of God are indeed not nearly religious enough. But I disagree with his conclusion that this means that religious people ought to retreat from acting on their faith. It’s just that we must be very clear about what kind of action God calls from us. Let’s let Jesus’s word guide us again:

‘Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will know them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thorns, or figs from thistles? In the same way, every good tree bears good fruit, but the bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus you will know them by their fruits. (Matt. 7:15-19)

Those who are truly, and “extremely”, religious, will be people whose fruits are acts of love, kindness, compassion, social and economic justice. This means refusing to use force and violence in the name of God, to be sure, but it does not mean retreating from all religiously-inspired activity. To do so would be to abdicate our responsibility to build the just and loving society God calls the human community to be.

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.