The Threat of Power and the Limits of Solidarity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On the Duplicity of Clinton’s Anti-Racism

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Displaced Critique: Ehrenreich’s Fumbled History of the Spirit

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Election 2016: Of Candidates, Frogs, and Lifting the Lid

frogsWith the full convention nominations of Trump and Clinton, electoral debates have picked up in intensity over the last few weeks. Most notably, Democrats supporting Clinton have become increasingly hostile to any suggestion that leftists and progressives might not vote for her in November. The debates between Clinton supporters and her left-leaning detractors are almost always excellent examples of people talking past—rather than to—each other. Each side takes the other to task for missing the central point. Each side attempts to convince the other with arguments that rest on premises that the other does not accept. Unsurprisingly, these discussion generally lead nowhere.

The easiest way to characterize the difference is to point out that most Clinton-supporters’ rhetoric is focused on the near- or short-term, while most of her left-leaning detractors discuss the long-term. The trouble is, neither side seems to realize that their arguments develop from these differing frameworks and assumptions. Clinton-supporters continue to stress the catastrophic consequences of a Trump presidency; the possibility of a Trump-appointed Supreme Court Justice looms heavily in their minds, and the risks associated with him as commander-in-chief also stoke their anxiety. And of course, these are both serious threats. Recognizing these threats, such supporters focus all of their energy on electing Clinton, and see any criticism of her—however honest and well-supported by evidence—as necessarily supportive of Trump.

Meanwhile, most leftists and progressives respond that most of the major problems facing the nation and indeed the world will remain unaddressed, regardless of who is elected. Although on some issues—especially on so-called “culture war” issues—Clinton’s record and platform differ from Trump’s, on a host of other issues, including national defense, tax policy, regulation of the finance industry, combating global warming, increasing union density, regulating trade, etc. the differences are slight or even absent (the differences in rhetoric are at times substantial, but Clinton’s actual record of support—as First Lady, as a Senator, and as Secretary of State—betray the superficiality of much of what she says). The fundamental economic, cultural, and political structures that are destroying ecosystems and leading to massive exploitation of humans, especially of workers in developing countries, will remain completely intact, regardless of who is elected. From the long-term perspective, then, the fight between Clinton and Trump begins to look less and less important. What is needed is not a new leader of the system, but a radically different system to begin with.

The trouble is, neither of these perspectives—the short- or the long-term—has an exclusive claim to rationality or sound evidence. In truth, human decision-making always has to take both the short-term and the long-term into consideration. Problems arise when what makes sense in the short-term differs substantially from what makes sense in the long-term. Many leftists are pointing out that, with each election, the Democrats are moving more and more to the right on most issues besides the “culture war” ones which they use to differentiate themselves from the GOP and win otherwise undecided voters. They argue that unless leftists and progressives actually withhold their electoral support from the party, making it conditional on real legislative or executive action favoring working-class people, the Democratic Party has no incentive or reason to actually follow-through with any substantial progressive legislation.

But this kind of “disciplining” of the party would, in the short-term, mean risking giving whatever offices are up for election to Republicans, an even more reactionary political entity. Thus what seems necessary, if risky, in the long-term, looks absolutely suicidal in the short-term. There is no panacea to this tension between the tactical and the strategic, but some reflection on the intractability of our political situation may yield fruit.

It’s worth pointing out that “true” conservatives found themselves in a somewhat similar situation in the post-war period. From the mid-thirties onward, New Deal politics was ascendant, and by the mid-50s both parties both basically accepted a “mixed economy” as the default. (It’s important to remember that this was before the great realignment of the late 60s and early 70s; there were cultural liberals and conservatives in both parties, but the Republicans were the traditional party of capitalists whose businesses were labor-intensive.) Cultural conservatives and libertarians, especially the latter, were largely excluded from serious political decision-making. But instead of compromising endlessly with their opponents, these groups began to organize seriously, especially in academia and within think-tanks, and in fact soon became known for their absolute refusal to compromise. Though this meant that they were excluded from power in the short-term, it also meant that many working- and middle-class voters began to take their positions seriously, in part precisely because they were not publicly revealed as corrupted by abuses of power. And such ideologues were taken more seriously by rank-and-file Americans because they actually said what they meant and believed, year in and year out. They articulated a consistent vision for what they thought a just and righteous political order would look like, and they did not hesitate to withhold support from Republican candidates who did not play ball.

Eventually, of course, this strategy paid off. Not only in the Reagan period, but even more in the neoliberal turn of the 90s—when Democrats themselves began to pander to many neoliberal economic and neoconservative foreign policy demands (e.g. NAFTA, the ’94 omnibus crime bill, the ’96 welfare “reform” bill)—showed that, at least under the right conditions, a hard-line ideological stance can be effective in changing the very criteria used to judge what is accepted decision-making. They were able to change the context of what is seen as politically feasible. Of course, this lesson cannot be applied directly to leftist politics. All sorts of conditions affected the success of libertarian agitation in the late 20th century. Two obvious factors that were extremely beneficial were: first, lots of wealthy individuals and companies were eager to bankroll the movement, and second, economic trends—both domestic and global—were disrupting the post-war equilibrium. Nonetheless, their success might still point to a broad outline for how leftists can refine their organizing strategies for the long-term in a serious and disciplined way. My suggestion is that we must think in a more explicit and disciplined manner about how to act in order to effect this long-term change, rather than present our long-term anxieties within a political system that responds only to the short-term.

Next, I’d like to employ an extended metaphor to try and capture the existential difficulties of managing the tension between the differing incentives of the short- and long-term frameworks. Most people are familiar with the truism that if you place a frog in boiling water, it will recognize the danger and leap out to safety—but if you place a frog in room-temperature water and then slowly raise the heat, it will die before it realizes it’s in danger.

Our electoral situation today can, I think, be meaningfully compared to such a frog. The Republicans are calling for an increase in temperature of one degree each minute. The Democrats, dismissing this as crazy and irresponsible, suggest the much more modest increase of only half a degree each minute. There’s no question that a half-degree increase is better than a full degree; being cooked later is better than being cooked now. In the short term, supporting the half-degree party makes perfect sense; in fact, not supporting it seems patently insane. But both parties are still trying to cook us alive. In the long-term, the only possible action is, of course, for the frog to get out of the pot.

The question is: how can we simultaneously support the party that is only trying to exploit us at half-speed, while also working to turn the gas off? If we find that there’s a lid on the pot and we can’t get out quickly, then by all means, let’s support the half-degree party in the short-term. At the very least, it buys us some time. But if that’s all we do, then we are still doomed.

Now, in this metaphor, the half-degree partisans insist that they, too, support cutting the heat off if and when possible. Democrats suggest voting for Clinton to guard ourselves in the short-term, and then organizing over the coming years to enable more substantial, if gradual, change by holding Clinton and other Democrats accountable. But history suggests this is a dead-end. We have heard this time and time again. Every four years, Democrat politicians and think-tankers warn us that the Republicans are about to turn up the flame, increasing the heat two or three degrees all at once: we have to support the Democratic nominee no matter what, or else we will face an existential threat in the person of McCain, or Romney, or now Trump.

People are talking today as if Trump is the exception, that he is a unique candidate, so vile that we have to do whatever we can to prevent him from entering the White House. This may be true, so far as it goes, but the rhetoric we are hearing from the Democrats is not at all unique. The sky was falling in 2008 and 2012, just as it’s falling now. And the only acceptable answer to this collapse is, always and forever, voting Democrat. They promise that this not only guards us against Republican malfeasance in the short-term, but also that it is the foundation for more profound change in the long-term.

But in the past, in in the intervening years between elections, these exact same politicians and academics have worked tirelessly to support the very neoliberal economic (and neoconservative diplomatic and military) agendas they denounced in the election year. We must remember that in the 50s and 60s the half-degree party was actually a quarter-degree party. This is the problem with the “vote for them now and then hold their feet to the fire next year” strategy. The only fire we have to hold their feet to is the election itself. This strategy is a bait-and-switch. It always turns out that the progress we asked for isn’t the progress we were really looking for—the Party knows what direction we should be going better than we do. Those trying to pose today as borderline socialists turn out to be hardcore neoliberals outside of election years.

So, again: I agree that, come November, a vote for a half-degree increase is better than a full-degree for those of us feeling warm in the kitchen (and considering the rapid onset of global warming, this metaphor is perhaps more apt than we’d like to admit). But we also need to recognize that those insisting that we vote for the half-degree are not necessarily allies in trying to get the lid off the pot. Their power comes from being the lesser-evil, from gaining control by presenting themselves as the less-unreasonable group. In the short-term, sure, let’s tactically support them. But we are fools if we think such support is sufficient, and we are still fools if we think that we can somehow turn supporting the half-degree party into support for a lift-the-lid party. They have no interest in doing so, because at the end of the day, they (or, at least those who fund them) want to cook the frog all the same.

So, what does any of this mean? What do I suggest should fall out from these reflections? I might say something like this: we could agree with Noam Chomsky and John Halle that lesser-evil voting makes sense in swing states, but then insist that radicals and progressives not living in swing states have just as much a duty to vote for a leftist party as those who do live in swing states have to vote for the Democrats. This must be said, because the lesser-evil argument only ever seems to stress the latter point. But if those advocating lesser-evilism are arguing in good faith, they should be as insistent that electoral decisions, when they are not required for blocking Republicans getting electoral college votes, should always be used to push a leftist agenda. This remains the case, I believe, even if some of these lesser-evilists deny that electoral politics in general is the primary avenue through which radical politics can be articulated, built, and pursued. And this brings us to another common critique, advanced by, for example, Dan Savage. Savage critiqued Stein and the Greens because they had no chance of actually winning the 2016 election—but of course, this critique only has teeth if Stein et al. actually think they can win this election. In truth, of course, the purpose of launching a third-party presidential campaign under current conditions is to gain visibility for issues that the two main parties are ignoring, and, if possible, to win the necessary percentage of polls to enter debates, and the requisite 5% of the votes on election day to secure federal funding.

Savage and others have argued that if Greens are serious, they should be focusing on local candidates and not the presidency. This critique is misplaced for two reasons: first, of course, there are all kinds of Green Party candidates for local-level elections, something that Savage seems not to have bothered to research before crafting his polemic. Second, though, this whole critique is built on a faulty understanding of how parties, and social movements more broadly, are built. The fact of the matter is that, especially today, in a media-saturated culture, movements need a visible national-scale presence to really get any attention and traction. Furthermore, radicals recognize that we need to not only propose alternate policies, but actually alternative frameworks for thinking about policies. That is, we need a change of context, a re-thinking of our values and our assumptions about what the state and markets really should be doing. It is unlikely that we will achieve that by running candidates for local boards of education—as worthwhile as such campaigns are, we need to be trying to change the very principles of the debate we are having. Or, to return to our kitchen metaphor, we have to start asking why we are in a pot of heating water in the first place.

It is this change of context, a change of values, a change in what most citizens see as good and possible, that is important. I should be clear that I have no particular attachment to the Green Party; it is just the case that, for the moment, they are one of the few institutions that critique the status quo at the national level and get any attention. The point here is not that the Greens can save us, but rather that we can use their campaign as an opportunity to change the conversation, even as we admit that in some states, we will have to try to win the current argument.

How vs. Why: Tension in the Means and Ends of the Church

HTBromptonRelevant Magazine’s most recent issue has a short article by James Dwyer on Holy Trinity Brompton, a parish in the Church of England which the piece celebrates for its innovative engagement with contemporary culture. At a time, Dwyer stresses, that the CoE’s membership is collapsing, Holy Trinity Brompton (“HTB”)is showing massive growth, not only of its principle parish, but also of additional “centres” (what I think would traditionally be called parish missions) around London. Dwyer chalks this success up to Brompton’s vicar, Nicky Gumbel, who critiques the “classical music” model of traditional Anglicanism and advocates for liturgy, formation, and fellowship modeled instead on contemporary culture.

Now, on the face of it, I don’t see anything necessarily wrong with this. The idea that the kerygma must be translated, as it were, into new cultural forms is as old as the Church itself; Paul struggled to faithfully convey the radical perspective of this new Jewish sect to his Gentile converts. But, as with most things in life, the devil is in the details. What are we talking about when we talk about “culture”, anyway? It’s such a broad term, and it can cover things as seemingly innocuous as contemporary slang and fashion, to weightier issues like consumerism. Which elements of culture, exactly, is Rev. Gumbel interested in being “in sync” with–and are there any elements of contemporary culture he is not willing to compromise with? These are really the essential questions, but, disappointingly, Dwyer does not press them.

And there are deeper questions still, questions which do not even come up over the horizon of this article. Fundamentally, what do we think the Church is really about, anyway? The driving assumption of this piece is, as far as I can see, that the goal of the Church is simply to get more members, more butts in pews, higher Average Sunday Attendance. HTB is celebrated by Dwyer because it succeeds at getting people to come into church on a regular basis in a country where Christianity is in major decline. That seems to be the only criterion for success here. More traditional parishes are dismissed because their membership is falling, while Gumbel’s work is presented as self-evidently wonderful because he built it, and people are coming.

Now, doubtlessly, the Church can achieve nothing if it has no members; indeed, the Church just is the community of its members. So there really can’t be any disagreement that for the Church as a whole and for specific denominations and congregations to be around in the first place, they have to find ways to gain and retain membership. But we have to be aware of “mission creep”–having our means slowly come to be seen as our ends. Gaining and maintaining members is only worthwhile if those members–all of us–actually take Christian discipleship seriously. Simply going to Church and describing oneself as a Christian is the first, not the last, step of our faith. The question is whether our parishes are inviting and challenging people with the full force of the Gospel.

Now, again, the Gospel is not tied to any particular kind of music, or architecture, or type of vestments. Innovation and change in these matters has been the norm, not the exception. That said, we must not ignore issues on which the Church and our culture more broadly are in real conflict. To the extent that Gumbel is suggesting more or less superficial changes to our liturgy or our PR, I don’t see anything particular objectionable about this. But my guess is that being “in sync” with contemporary culture ultimately involves more than this. Note, for example, that Christian formation shifts, in his “Alpha” educational program, to “down-to-earth conversations about Jesus and faith, not just theology”. It’s not clear exactly what this means (and I am not familiar with these educational materials), but this sounds like an attempt to sideline perhaps serious questions of faith and commitment in order to make the Gospel more digestible–less challenging, less radical, less imposing. As I have suggested before, I think this is the opposite of what we should be doing. The Church should be challenging central elements of our culture, like hyper-individualism and the logic of capitalism. Are we likely to do this if our primary concern is being “in sync” with the culture (it must, of course, be admitted that more traditional-looking and -acting parishes do no better on this score–but this only deepens, rather than mitigating, the problem!)

Central to my concern here is the point that our means and our ends are not easily decoupled. We tend to think in a disconnected way about our methods and our goals, but in fact, frequently, certain goals just can’t be achieved by certain methods. If we begin by insisting that contemporary society requires a certain set of means or methods before we lock down exactly what our goals are, we are liable to lose track of what it is we thought we were up to, and move into a habit of focusing on just continuing our methods, as if the indefinite extension of those methods was our goal all along.

Indeed, at times, the logic of our methods is actually not just less-than-ideal to achieving our goals, but is rather totally counter to them. And all the hand-wringing about declining membership, I think, shows this with extreme clarity. If, at its core, the Church is about announcing both the bad news that human society is horribly disfigured by sin and the Good News that God has acted, and is acting, decisively to heal that disfiguration, then we should be suspicious of methods of growing the Church that demand that the Church shape itself around contemporary culture, itself part of the larger world disfigured by sin. In other words: the Church was inaugurated to challenge much of human culture. When we become more focused on how to model ourselves on the culture around us rather than challenging it, we lose our focus on the actual goal of the Body of Christ.

This, as I said above, is most decidedly not a new problem. We see it witnessed to in Scripture, in the earliest theological texts of the sub-Apostolic era (e.g. Justin Martyr and Irenaeus), all the way up through the medieval and modern periods as well. Richard H. Niebuhr’s Christ and Culture is often pointed to as a seminal text in studying these matters, but he was simply providing an updated look at the issue, not inaugurating a new field of study.

And it must be admitted that much of what more traditionalist Christians are defending against cultural innovation is just older cultural innovation. The music we find “traditional” today was new a few centuries ago; the early Church had no pipe organs or sheet music. The habit of kneeling to pray is only common in the western Church, and became so only in the medieval period (previously, standing was the norm, with occasional acts of full prostration generally reserved for particular kinds of prayer, especially penitential acts). The vestments common in the western Church were borrowed, more or less, from the Roman Senate. So Gumbel and others would be completely correct in saying that we should be ready to change much of this. I would certainly agree.

But we have to be on guard against allowing the logic behind making those sorts of changes replicating and expanding itself into our thinking about other matters. That’s not to say that more fundamental changes in liturgy or theology should never be made; such a position is simply a fetishization (one might even say idolization) of the past. But changes to our core beliefs must never be made simply to get more butts in the pews. Once we are willing to change core principles simply to try and keep the Church alive, we know that it’s definitely about to die.

For example, over the last 50 years many Christians–myself included–have embraced the ordination of women and the welcoming of LGBTQ Christians with full equality in the Church. But if I thought the only reason for doing so was to keep the Church up to contemporary cultural attitudes and membership up, I would be deeply worried. Instead, I would argue that Christians with “progressive” attitudes on these issues are actually just the very Christians who are most willing to be challenged by the Holy Spirit and the radical witness of Scripture. Sexism and heteronormativity, in other words, were actually cultural constructs which the Church adopted precisely in order to be accepted by the culture around it (the argument for this claim would obviously take up much more space than I have here; lots of work, historical, textual, and theological, has been done on this. A good place to start might be to read, say, Galatians and then either of the Epistles to Timothy –probably written much later–and note the tension between them).

That is to say: much of both our traditions and  our innovations are actually just hypostatized ideas about our means rather than our goals. We absolutely should be wiling to discard “traditions” that are at tension with the radical message of the Gospel–but we must be just as wary of innovations that are in the same tension. The truth of the matter is that the Christian faith has no business being popular. We worship a God whose Word became incarnate in a man who was tortured and killed by the state, whose friends abandoned him after spending years completely misunderstanding his message. Apart from a few poor people, he was not popular during his lifetime, and the Church took the better part of a century to grow to about 10,000 members. We preach a stumbling block, a millstone around the neck. Our Lord calls us to sell everything, give the money to the poor, and take up a Cross–a torture-device. When we baptize our children, we wash them in the death of Jesus. We announce that our only hope comes through the mystery of death.

basilSocialJusticeNone of this is calculated to be popular or easy to accept. So any church that is growing at a phenomenal rate is likely doing so precisely because it is refusing to really be honest about what Jesus taught and teaches, what kind of life Christian discipleship really is. Instead of focusing on getting more butts in the pews, we should be worried about whether we ourselves are really living as faithful witnesses of our radical, incredible, and, let’s admit it, scary faith. We are promised not a pie in the sky, but division, and fire, and strife–because our social, economic, political, and cultural structures feed on exploitation, misery, ignorance, and hatred. Our goal is to fight these structures, to do the work God has called us to in the abandoned vineyard–and yes, to welcome more workers into the vineyard. But that’s just it–we should only rejoice if someone has really committed to that work. If our churches are full of people who say “Lord, Lord”, but do not keep Jesus’s commandments, who do not feed the hungry and visit prisoners and challenge the Ruler of this world, then what have we done, exactly?

Indeed, we should be asking ourselves how many people already in church–very much including ourselves and this writer–are actually living the Gospel. Perhaps we should spend less time worrying about getting more people into the church, and more time worrying about whether the Church really is doing the work its Head calls it to do. And indeed, if we actually lived, publicly and privately, the way Christ calls us to, I imagine that people really interested in a deep life of commitment–and not just feel-good spirituality–would take notice. Before we evangelize, let’s make sure we know what the Good News we are trying to spread actually is.

All of this is to say, not that everything that HTB is doing is somehow wrong (all I know about this particular parish I have gleaned from the rather slim article introduced at the beginning of this post), but rather that I think that those eager to celebrate this approach to ministry are asking the wrong questions, worried more about our social media presence than about whether the Church is really living the radicalness of the Gospel. I fear that so much of the innovation many contemporary ministers are interested in is really just like decorating a funeral home with bright balloons and playing up-beat music in the entryway. We are welcoming people to a corpse, but spending all of our time on the welcome, instead of trying to resuscitate the body.

Brexit, Trump, Xenophobia, and Labor

brexit-flagThe past few days have seen much hand-wringing about the so-called “Brexit“: the referendum, held in the UK  on June 24, on whether the UK should leave the European Union. Somewhat surprisingly, the “leave” vote ended up receiving a majority. Most media commentators have presented this as an absolute disaster, for two main reasons. First, many have pointed to the likely economic and monetary downsides–be it the implementation of tariffs between the UK and other European states, the slide in the value of the Pound Sterling against other currencies, etc. The second claim is that the vote to leave the EU is both a manifestation of, and will strengthen, racist and xenophobic sentiment in the UK.

Now, both of these claims rest on a wide range of complex economic and sociological theories. I am not particularly well-qualified to enter the fray on, for example, European tariff policy. My goal here is rather to focus on the assumptions and rhetoric involved, because the discussion of Brexit reveals the way in which how we talk about something ends up shaping what we can think about it.

Comparing the pro-Brexit camp to US supporters of Trump–a comparison that has been frequently made over the last four days–really strengthens the deeper point I want to make here. Many commentators, both ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative’, have bemoaned the xenophobia and racism that rests, either implicitly or explicitly, in many of Trump’s speeches, and have themselves implied that this proves that most of the support for him is really just the racism of poorer white Americans become manifest in a demagogic presidential candidate who would otherwise have basically no support.

This is obviously an over-generalization, but I have no issue with this claim on its surface. I basically agree. What troubles me is that no one seems to think this situation needs further analysis. The racism of poor whites is simply taken for granted, rather than as a social situation that needs an explanation. And it is this reality about our mass media that I think points to the more important discussion. Because so long as racism is seen as the natural attitude of poor whites, those in positions of political and economic power can deflect criticism from themselves. If voters respond angrily to globalization, the message we hear is that a bunch of racists are xenophobic, and that’s why Brexit or Trump have support. The idea that there could be other concerns motivating these voters isn’t even discussed, much less taken seriously. In this way, people are given only two options: either admit that you are a backward, xenophobic racist resistant to progress, or you have to get in line with whatever social, political, and economic structures global elites have endorsed. So long as those are our options, of course, many people feel pressured to join the latter group.

Once we ask the question of why poor whites should be racist in the first place, though, we can begin to unravel this simplistic and dichotomous presentation of human societies. It is crucial to see that the very idea that poor whites just are racist is itself a claim meant to limit critiques of global capitalism. And here the word “ignorance” is thrown around a lot: the claim is that uneducated people are ignorant of other cultures, and that people who are ignorant in this way simply respond to the unknown with an automatic hatred. The solution, then, is both more (expensive) education or, considering the lack of universal access to higher education, to simply trust those with the advanced degrees from famous schools. If one questions the claims of this group, one is immediately dismissed as ignorant and therefore necessarily a manifestation of xenophobia and racism.

To be branded as ignorant is to be excluded from being taken seriously in policy discussions, and this is a way of cutting off whole dialogues, whole topics of discussion. No one seems interesting in asking why poor whites might be racist and xenophobic. Though I won’t pretend to have the expertise in general nor the space in this post to try and answer a question that would take a team of sociologists and economics multiple volumes to even begin to answer, I think there are two broad points that need to be made–and repeated in public.


First, the historical dimension: north-west Europeans have not always hated darker-skinned people. White supremacism is not some ethnically ingrained attitude of fair-skinned peoples. White supremacy has a history, and it was invented, at least in the English-speaking world, in the 17th century to justify a new and horrendous form of labor relations: chattel slavery. Two facts about the early North American colonies need to be made clear: first off, up until the 1670’s, English and African workers sometimes banded together to attack land-owners. They recognized what later Euro-Americans (who at that later point identified as “white”) frequently have and do not: that their interests aligned with other un-landed working people. The fact that other agricultural workers had different colors of skin didn’t matter to them, because they had not been taught to divide people according to this physical feature. But they definitely recognized the divisions of property ownership and class.

Second, the initial groups of enslaved Africans brought to colonies like Virginia were not treated as chattel slaves, because the legal and cultural categories of chattel slavery had not yet been invented. Some Africans were even freed and given land after a period of service, like European indentured servants. This is important for two reasons. First, it demonstrates that even the elites did not think of Africans as anything other than dark-skinned fellow human beings. They were treated more or less the same as white servants (whose rate of survival, it should be pointed out, was only about 50% while in indentured service).

Secondly, though, and more ominously, this fact also shows the reason that the social structure of chattel slavery  was developed. English land-owners had a lot of (stolen) land, but not nearly enough labor to really profit off of it. The big cash crops like cotton and tobacco required a vast amount of labor. Too few Europeans were motivated to sign on as indentured servants, and the flow of forced African labor was too slow to provide enough labor to be profitable on a large scale, precisely because those Africans were eventually freed (or died early) and even sometimes given land of their own. From the standpoint of Capital, a new form of labor relations had to be asserted that would guarantee more access to cheaper labor.

Thus chattel slavery, at least in its incarnation in the English-speaking world, was invented. But it had to be justified. Christian churches had been inveighing against slavery for centuries, and absolutely forbade the enslavement of other Christians. So political and economic elites needed to find a way to provide sufficient moral and legal justification for chattel slavery–especially one that would justify slavery for certain groups even if they converted to Christianity. And the answer, of course, was to regard some (indeed, most) humans as not fully persons–some humans, it was argued, were not intellectually and culturally capable of the kinds of sophisticated patterns of behavior necessary to own property in an efficient manner.

Of course, this argument is empirically ridiculous, but it didn’t matter. Not only did it provide a legal justification for slavery-in-perpetuity (that is, slaves were never to be freed and their children were to be regarded as property of their parents’ owners) but it also provided a crucial wedge between poor English people and African slaves, because no matter how poor or oppressed English colonists might find themselves, they were still regarded as better than Africans, as legally-recognized persons (even if often only in theory, considering the low rates of real property ownership among most colonists). This meant that such English colonists–now referred to as “white” people (and it is important to note that not all fair-skinned Europeans were yet regarded as “white”) would no longer be likely to make common cause with African agricultural workers, because they would risk their own privileged status, even if this privilege was often rather superficial in material terms. White supremacy was–and is–a double-edged sword. It provides the justification for objectifying a whole continent of people and simultaneously infects working-class European-Americans with a virus that prevents them from often acting in their own economic interests. From the standpoint of the landowners, perhaps no technology was more important than this cultural and legal innovation. White supremacy was a tool used to craft a new, profoundly racist, culture in North America.


Again, the above is only the barest possible sketch of this history. But we now need to swing centuries forward into the present, and ask the question: why might whites today still feel animus against foreigners and non-whites? Of course, part of the answer is historical–the culture that was invented in the 17th century very much continues today, despite major victories by people of color in their struggles for recognition, independence, and equality. But the modern global economy provides a new form of the same basic set of labor relations that underpinned white supremacism in the 17th century. Although throughout most of the world, slavery is of course illegal, the economic gains that land- and business-owners can realize through maintaining labor mobility are still massive. If English planters needed hundreds of thousands and then millions of laborers to make cash crops from the American South profitable, likewise today, corporations need to find the cheapest possible source of labor to maximize profits. And maintaining the ability of workers to move freely is part-and-parcel of the modern system for achieving this.


Nets deployed at a Foxconn factory in China to prevent worker suicides.

This is for two main reasons: first, labor and wage laws differ massively between different nations. Where wages, benefits, and labor standards are higher, of course, the price of labor will be higher, and so goods will be more expensive. Of course, from the workers’ point of view, so long as the gains in wages and benefits outstrip this increase in cost, this is completely worth it (thus it is crucial to distinguish between real and nominal wages). But for Capital, if a product or service can be produced by labor outside of that nation, but then sold back in that market where the prices reflect the generally higher cost of labor, then the marginal profit rate will skyrocket.


This is the reasoning behind outsourcing, of course, and most people recognize that this is happening, and most, even those who defend global neoliberalism, will generally admit that it has downsides. But contemporary labor relations are more complex still. To see how, I think we need a specific example: NAFTA.

The North American Free Trade Agreement went into effect in 1994. It eliminated tariffs, quotas, and other restrictions of trade between the US, Canada, and Mexico. In theory, of course, “free trade” should mean that the country which is most efficient and effective at producing each kind of good should produce that good and then trade it for other goods which it is not efficient or effective at producing. This is just boilerplate Ricardo. And, actually, this is more or less true. Trade certainly isn’t a bad thing in and of itself.

But NAFTA didn’t actually institute truly free trade. For one thing, there was no way to ensure equal labor protections between workers in each country, which of course meant that business was going to flock to wherever labor was cheapest–that is, where labor was treated the worst. But NAFTA also did not address the issue of subsidies, and it it this issue, which perhaps seems equal parts arcane and boring, that we really need to pay attention to.

The US subsidizes the production of corn (maize), wheat, rice, cotton, and soy, among other agricultural goods. The reasons behind these subsidies is actually pretty compelling: first, to ensure that the US has the means to produce enough food to feed its own population, so that it is not dependent on other nations for this obviously vital supply. And second, to try and combat poverty among the rural population, to ensure that farmers can make enough money from their work and land to support their families (this is important due to the peculiar nature of agricultural markets, which is crucial in understanding the problems in developmental economics, but I can’t get into that here).

But once NAFTA was enacted, these subsidies had a new and wildly problematic effect: all of the sudden, US corn sold in Mexico was cheaper than Mexican corn. Importantly, this was not because US corn was cheaper to produce–in fact, just the opposite was true–but because of the subsidies. So long as US farmers knew that their government was going to pay them a set fee for each pound of corn produced, they could afford to sell that corn at under cost and still make a handsome profit. Once NAFTA went into effect, the Mexican government could no longer impose tariffs or quotas on American corn, and this meant Mexican farmers had to compete with US farmers, who had the financial assistance of the US federal government.

The results were predictable (and that’s important to remember). Millions of Mexican farmers, many of whom were working land that their families had owned for generations, went bankrupt. Of course, in the short-term, Mexican consumers benefited–the cost of corn, a staple of the Mexican diet, went down. But once the Mexican domestic corn market collapsed, the price of course increased dramatically, since US farmers no longer had to sell cheap in order to out-compete Mexican farmers, many of whom were now basically absent from the market (of course, corn is still produced in Mexico, but not nearly at the levels of the past). So in the medium- and long-term, working-class Mexicans lost in two ways: first, millions lost their land and their jobs and became unemployed; second, the price of a basic food staple ultimately went up, and Mexican national security was also endangered as the country could no longer provide its own food base.

Now we can see the source of the labor mobility mentioned above. With millions of Mexican farmers and agricultural workers suddenly out of work, two things happen: first, maquiladoras–factories built on the Mexican side of the Mexican-US border which produced goods cheaply with Mexican labor but then imported those goods into the US (an arrangement only possible, of course, because of NAFTA)–are able to depress wages even further due to the huge influx of these recently unemployed Mexicans. When workers know that there are hundreds of thousands of people desperate for work, they have no leverage to push for better wages, benefits, or working conditions. (Maintaining a certain minimum level of unemployment is actually a good thing from the standpoint of Capital. And this is crucial to remember, despite all the rhetoric from both parties in the US about wanting to fight unemployment.)

Second, of course, many of these displaced workers crossed the border to work in the US, for while the Mexican economy was in a tumult, the US economy was booming in the mid- and late-90’s. And the agricultural sector was doing particularly well, especially as it now had new markets in which it had a massive competitive advantage in the form of federal subsidies. So millions of Mexicans (among others) crossed the border in the years following NAFTA; although undocumented immigration is nothing new, the number of people crossing the border in those years was particularly high.

Now, just as the increase in unemployed workers depressed wages and labor’s power in Mexico, so too did the influx of labor have negative effects on US workers. Mexicans and Central Americans coming into the US took jobs not only in the agricultural sector, but also in the service industry and in certain other industries (especially meat-packing). This negatively impacted US workers in at least two ways: first, through directly displacing such workers (since undocumented workers are almost always willing to work for less than US citizens) and by simply increasing pressure on employed workers–again, if you know that there are a lot of unemployed people in your area, you are not going to have the leverage to push for better wages, benefits, etc. A higher rate of unemployment in general will lead to lower wages, all other things being equal, even if the actual number of Americans displaced is relatively small. The “reserve army” of unemployed workers has this effect regardless.

And this, of course, is at least one source of poor whites’ animosity towards foreigners and undocumented immigrants. Simply referring to this attitude as racist or xenophobic does not capture anywhere near the complexity of the situation. This is not to say that many poor whites are not, indeed, racist and xenophobic apart from economic conditions–although, again, as our short historical summary above pointed out, even this racism and xenophobia did not arrive out of a vacuum. But to simply dismiss workers’ concerns about jobs and wages as nothing more than an incoherent manifestation of latent racism, itself the product of nothing more than ignorance, is itself a wildly ignorant position.

The reality is that, paradoxical as it may sound, the reason that political and economic elites today are so happy to endorse multiculturalism and antiracism is the same reason that, in centuries past, they endorsed white supremacy and nativism. Those who own land and capital endorse cultural, political, and economic systems that suit their interests, especially that of keeping the cost of labor down. CEOs, entrepreneurs, and politicians aren’t mad about Brexit because they are kept awake at night worrying about the realities of structural racism. They are upset and scared because of the effect Brexit will have on their bottom line.


None of this, of course, means that Brexit was necessarily good. I know far too little about the intricacies of the EU to give any kind of opinion on that matter. My point is just this: if many white Britons were motivated to leave the EU because they were worried about the influx of workers willing to work for less money and security than British citizens, this is a completely legitimate concern. Of course, many of these people may also hold repugnant attitudes towards foreigners. I’m not arguing that Brexiters are morally perfect people, but I am arguing that one of the root reasons many people are upset about immigration is the economic insecurity that immigration really does help to generate.

BankerCookiesAnd of course, it must be said that my critique here is not against immigrants themselves. They are just looking to find work wherever they can, the best wages they can, to try and support themselves and their families. Indeed, my point is that both workers who stay in their home country and immigrants who leave theirs to look for better options are both the victims of these economic policies. And so long as this narrative about working-class whites–that they oppose things like the EU or NAFTA purely due to racist and xenophobic attitudes–is not questioned, we will not be able to have a serious discussion about what it would look like to create local, regional, and global economic structures that can actually generate prosperity for all working people. So long as we only have the conventional conversation, we won’t be able to present or talk about options beyond neoliberalism. Racism is a tool invented to keep working people at war with each other. Liberal hand-wringing about the ignorant masses and their xenophobia is not meant to actually combat racism, but rather to profit off of it, by scaring middle-class people into supporting economic and political structures that are actually at the root of so many of our problems.

So whether you supported Brexit or not, whether you plan to vote for Clinton or not, whether you regard yourself as a ‘liberal’ or as a ‘conservative’, I implore you to think through the assumptions of the arguments that are made over the coming months. Instead of rushing to announce on social media that you support the ‘correct’ side, ask questions about the framing of the discussion itself. I think you will find that often, the most important questions are the ones media commentators are desperately trying to get you to never ask.

Church Versus Culture or Church With the Culture?

individualism71315Jason Evans penned a short piece over at his blog making a crucial point clear: the Church is not “special”, some kind of holy elect who can do no wrong. We have much to learn from non-Christians, whether from other religious traditions, secular political movements, or new scientific research. For more politically progressive Christians, this is an obvious point; those of us who are strong advocates for, say, women’s ordination or equality for LGBTQ Christians will be quick to point out that in many ways, progress on these issues resulted, at least in part, from the willingness of Christians to listen to arguments from outside the Church.

Of course, theologically, this could be restated as: the Spirit moves and speaks where it will. The Spirit hopefully speaks in and through the Church, but can just as easily speak elsewhere. And to this pneumatological point one might add an ecclesiological one: the Church is, as Cyprian of Carthage said, a “hospital for sick souls”. The only requirement for membership is recognition of one’s being caught up in sin. We are Christians because we recognize our desperate need to be renewed–not because we already have all the answers.

And there is no doubt that this is a message that needs repeating. We Christians do have a long history of Church-exceptionalism, thinking that only what comes from within our walls could possibly be worth listening to. Jason’s reminder is the kind of thing one might feel more ‘conservative’ Christians need to hear. (It should be pointed out here how vague this term ‘conservative’ is: political, cultural, religious, and fiscal conservatism are, for example, all quite distinct, and one could be conservative in one field and yet not in another. Nonetheless, lacking any more suitable term, I will use this one here, though one should keep in mind its vagueness throughout this piece.) Such Christians are much more likely, for example, to question evolution, forbid their children from listening to secular music, adopt less-compromising attitudes towards Scriptural interpretation, etc. If I am taking Jason’s point correctly, he is simply reminding such Christians of a basic theology of creation: God created us and everything else to be good. No matter how far we and others hae fallen, we should never forget that Truth can arise from anyplace whatsoever. Let’s not forget that it was the Assyrians of Ninevah and not the pious Israelites who heeded Jonah’s warning.

As far as all of this goes, I agree whole-heartedly with Jason’s point. But I also think we have to actually make the same sort of criticism in the opposite direction. Just as more ‘conservative’ Christians need this reminder that Truth may appear outside the boundaries of the Church, I think it should be said that more ‘liberal’ Christians need to be reminded of the ways in which Christian discipleship may demand confrontation with the culture around them. (And again, all the same caveats made above must also be made about this term ‘liberal’.) Just as there are undoubtedly situations in which the Church must be prepared to hear wisdom from non-Christian sources, there are also times in which we must be prepared to hold the line on our values and speak prophetically against problems we see in our culture.

Of course, precisely which issues require which response is itself a controversial matter. The point I want to make here is more formal and structural, rather than to advise compromise or confrontation on any specific issue. Indeed, though, I think it is precisely on structural issues that we Christians perhaps need to be most confrontational.

We humans tend to think that the structure of our thought and language just is what it is, and just reflects what is, more or less exactly and clearly. It’s very hard for us to imagine thinking about things in a completely different way. Examples of this are hard to come by, precisely because of the very issue itself: how does one think about thinking about things differently? One has to use the very structures of thought one wants to reflect on in the very reflection. How does a nearly-blind person inspect her own glasses?

Modern American Christians are, of course, modern and American just as much as they are Christian. We participate in, and are formed by, the cultural, political, social, and economic structures of the broader society. While we should absolutely be prepared to learn hard lessons from that society, we also need to reflect on it critically. Are there assumptions about humanity that our society accepts and promulgates uncritically? Are any of these assumptions at odds with Christian perspectives? I certainly think so. The best example is one that desperately needs more serious discussion, but which is increasingly hard to discuss precisely because it is so often treated without sufficient critical rigor: consumerist individualism.

Now, if your eyes are already rolling–“not another blog thinkpiece about consumerism!”–I can understand. Attacks on consumerism are now commonplace shibboleths in our culture, to the point that they seem drained of all importance. But I think this is precisely because such critiques themselves continue to operate out of the very perspective they seek to criticize, which is one reason I refer to ‘consumerist individualism’ rather than simply consumerism.

Frequently, consumerism is presented as a danger to an authentic individualism: consumerism is bad because, in consumerism, individuals are made to express themselves through the purchase of mass-manufactured items rather than expressing themselves through some other, presumably more legitimate, means. But this dodges the deeper issue, which is: what do we think we are talking about when we talk about individual identity in the first place?

This may seem like an odd question precisely because the idea that particular human beings have a more-or-less set identity–as well as the idea that being able to live that identity without interruption is the definition of a good society–are bedrock, fundamental principles of American political, social, and economic thought. This is well evidenced, I think, by the fact that both self-identified conservatives and liberals are likely to completely agree with the above statements, even if they tend to differ on which elements of identity are most important and on when compromise of self-interest is or is not valid. Individualism is ultimately a subterranean feature not only of our political system, but of our social culture and even our own ideas about our selves: we form an image of ourselves based on the way we are taught to think about ourselves–which, in our culture, is as individuals.

Beginning with the individual as the operative unit of political, social, and economic activity has a massive array of consequences, of which a specific few are I think crucial to note. Firstly, thinking of ourselves in this way first means that we think of society as something that individuals make. This is abundantly clear in Rousseau’s myth of the social contract, and is also clearly in play in the way we think of constitutional forms of government: people come together and agree to certain rules.

And this leads to the second major consequence: the assumption is that “self-interest is the proper goal of all human action“. A just society, from this perspective, is that society that allows individuals to act on their own interest without obstruction or interruption. Of course, compromises can be made on this through legislation of certain rules that everyone, or at least a majority, agree to. But the baseline assumption is that the goal is to allow for maximum individual autonomy, all other things being equal.

Thirdly and finally, what it means to be an individual here is basically to be either a property-owner or at least a potential property-owner. If the individual is defined by autonomy, and never by any social context, then no religion, nationality, ethnicity, family or culture can be defining terms of a particular human being. Since any such attribute is either changeable (e.g. religious conversion) or rendered abstract and meaningless (e.g. the relative unimportance of nationality in the identities of most natural-born US citizens) by choice, it is only the choices one makes relative to property ownership that ultimately really display the identity of the individual. Indeed, each of these other possible identities is viewed as just this–property. One can choose how, and whether, to present one’s ethnic or religious identity, and treat it more like clothing worn for reasons of fashion rather than a context which actually helped to determine the identity of the individual in the first place.

It’s worth noting that most contemporary Westerners, especially in the English-speaking world, seem to take these positions as facts, rather than as cultural interpretations. And when one points out that, for example, Chinese Confucian social theory has a radically different take on human identity, or even that Western Europe had very different views on it before the 17th century, this is generally seen only as evidence of the great progress that has been made. That is, we almost always perceive our own cultural and political structures as obviously true and right, and as either the default for any discussion of politics or anthropology, or at least as the high-water mark of human culture.

Now, at this point, we could descend into any number of discussions–on ethnography, for example, discussing the vast variety of human cultures, or on political ethics, perhaps discussing the virtues of these political and cultural structures. There is material enough for books upon books in this rich vein of possible topics. But I want to get back to the original discussion, on the Church’s response to non-Christian culture, philosophy, and achievements.

I want to suggest that though, as I said above, I strongly agree that we Christians must always be prepared to recognize truth when it is spoken, regardless of the source, we also must be critical of the larger culture which forms both our own communities as well as those outside the Church. And, more specifically, I think we must begin to consistently critique the assumptions of what I have outlined above as consumerist individualism. For one thing, as Christians, we simply cannot accept the claim that the ideal society is one where each individual simply pursues his or her own self-interest. Indeed, we should be clear that such a society would often be little more than an expression of our human sinfulness. Christ teaches us that it is love for others, and not the sating of self-interest, that is the mark of a just society.

And in admitting our sinfulness, we are also admitting that our very identities have been formed by political, social, cultural, and economic forces which manifest the rebellion against God’s love which is the problem Christ came to solve. This means accepting two things that the culture of consumerist individualism treats as heresy: first, we do not have identities which arrived out of the ether, some sacrosanct personality which exists apart from the world. Our personalities are not really ours at all: we are the complex structure(s) that result from our biology, our environment, our parents, our peers, and our educators. The society which we claim ownership of, in fact, actually shaped us into who we are. We define our individual uniqueness over and against the very set of factors which generated that unique identity.

Second, much of what makes us who we are are features that are, well, bad. I am often lazy and judgmental. This really is a part of my identity. But these are not features to be celebrated! Rather, they are marks of the ways in which I, and the world at large, has not developed into what God has created me, and the whole of existence, to be. So long as I hold onto the idea of a sacrosanct “I”, I will be blind to the depth of the ways in which I am not who God has made me to be. Which is to say: for the Christian, our true identity is a goal to be worked towards, not some inner and inherent possession.

All of this is ultimately a long and drawn-out, but I hope not useless, way of saying that the Church needs to be prepared to confront elements of our society that are problematic, elements that work against the mission that Christ sends us forth to. At times, we may find that it is actually us, the Church itself, that is the biggest impediment to Christ’s work. Other times, however, we may find that we must speak a prophetic word to secular thought. And in still other times, we may find that we and secular folks alike share a set of tragic assumptions which prevent us from speaking the Truth and working love. So I agree with Jason that it is important to remember that we Christians have much to learn from others. But I hope we also remember that at times, we may really have a unique and necessary truth to proclaim.

The two positions are not, of course, mutually exclusive, so long as we remember that we live in a complex world. But I think we nonetheless need to remind ourselves that, at the end of the day, the Church’s mission is not just to get by, reproducing its structure generation after generation in human cultures. God has and is acting to renew creation, to complete a work undone by sin. And that means that at our root, the Church must be ready to challenge the structures that keep us blind to the truth and unwilling to love in fullness.