Thursday, March 31, 2016

Against Happiness, or Why Christians Should Love Communism

In the first episode of Mad Men, Don Draper is trying to figure out how he is going to pitch his ad firm to Lucky Strike, a huge tobacco company. The problem confronting them is the Federal Government requiring all cigarettes to have hazardous logos on them. Draper speaks with a contracted psychiatrists who gives him a brief on Freud's concept of the death-drive. He dismisses this but his new-coming rival, Pete Cambell, jumps at what he thinks is a gold-mine. People want to die, so why not die styling, so Pete presents to the Tobacco men. They are horrified. Draper knew this, and, in a fit of creative genius, tells them the regulations are worthless. This is the best thing for them. They can say whatever they want. Everyone else's cigarettes are poisoned, Lucky Strikes are toasted.

Later that evening, Don Draper articulates a vision of life to his date. People don't know what they want, ad-men make those dreams for people and fulfill them. They want to drive through life, happy and free, without a bunch of rules being dropped on them, and fade into the sunset. The end.

Of course, that's not the end. Life doesn't end like a Hollywood movie. Don Draper knows that, but he can't accept it. Not really. The whole show is marked by his obsession with California, for a life he never had, for a kind of sublimation into his own horizon. Fittingly the show ends in the ultimate creative genius, the advertisement of his buddhistic state of Nirvana. The Coke commercial is what results.

When I first heard Don Draper in that first episode, that people are just looking for happiness, confused and lost, until someone can tell them what they need, I gave a horrified nod. I knew that the ad-men, in this scenario, was a kind of devil. However, I thought Don was right about happiness. That is, people just want to be happy, entered into a kind of conscious-forfetfulness, where nothing impinges upon their static state of inner tranquility. I would say that in a world of Ad-men, hucksters, shamans, priests, and witch-doctors, etc. the only solid answer is God. To quote famously: My heart is restless until it rests in you.

I don't repudiate that sentiment completely, but I seriously challenge it. I also challenge Don Draper. He's wrong. People don't want to be happy or static. Not really. Of course it's a constant temptation. In a world of fatigue, some of us get to the point of desiring the quiet of the grave. But it does not belong to Human nature to slumber eternally, whether in the shade of death, in the mythos of some kind of harp-adorned heaven, or in a beatific vision. For me that's a kind of hell(!), and why Origen, as bad as his answers are, at least addressed this. Origen tried to keep Eternity dynamic, even if it meant an eternal cycle of fall and redemption.

The Human is a dynamic creature, one that is alive in movement, being in becoming. According to St. Gregory of Nyssa, since man is created by the Infinite God, than man's boundaries are whatever they are set by the Creator. Thus, man can be always moved towards infinity, never reaching, yet always expanding. Eternity is man situated towards the Infinite, namely the God is everywhere, and yet always beyond, present and distant.

What Happiness, conceptually, represents the culminating idea of Modernity, the Mainstream Enlightenment: Capitalism. This ideology believes in quantification as the universal measure. All real things are things that can be measured. This might sound strange if we're talking about happiness. Surely happiness is an intangible sensation. Yet it is quantified in its sense as satisfaction. You are either happy or unhappy, your gauge is either green or red. Happiness is a by-product, an invention, of Capitalism.

When I say Capitalism, what I'm saying is the Market ideology. Socialism, in many respects, is an alternate, ameliorated, Capitalism. It still reasons and functions with a Market ideology, albeit with different goals and desired measurements. It still views the problem as fundamentally market-oriented.

The reality is that nobody really wants happiness. No one really wants to arrive at their goal and stop. Now one could say this is because man's desire is infinite and nothing but an infinite God can satisfy this (vis. Augustine above). But this is false. Man's desire is not infinite, that would mean that we are God. And plenty of us are quite content with what CS Lewis would call "mud-pies".

The problem is how we think about this. It doesn't matter so much as what man wants, as what man has become in Jesus Christ. As the Second Adam, God incarnated, Christ represents the transfiguration of man. Jesus Christ is the Magnet that all Mankind is drawn towards, the erasure of all boundaries in His unquenchable glory. As He said, "When I am lifted up, I will draw all Men to Myself".

Yet most Christians are deluded into Capitalistic notions. Now obviously it is anachronistic in the most blunderous sense to seemingly equate Augustine as a nascent Capitalist. Far be it. My point is that Augustine has only muddied the waters in seeing through this, and discerning the hope in the midst of it. His anthropology has been a hindrance for Christians to get beyond this.

Capitalism, while abolishing many facets of previous evils, has become the demon-god of this era. It is a new religion that has many different sects and traditions, all worshiping Mammon in the most complete and systematic way.

When Marx came on the scene, his criticism of Capitalism was based on market analysis and class-warfare, but it was not simply a kind of market revolution. It was an eschatological, apocalyptic overturning of an entire age. The Communist Utopia of Marx was a place where the Market had been eradicated. Now, most people do not believe his Left-Hegelian metaphysics or philosophy(theology) of history. But it's worth noting this as an important intellectual development, even for Christians.

Communists, both before and after Marx, offer a vision that destroys Capitalism and Market ideology. It is the ideology of the modern world that has the most sophisticated challenge to Capitalism, in its roots, as a battle against Mammon.

Sadly the Church, in most of its institutional forms, has operated as a chaplain to whatever national, corporate, or social body it has been attached to. Many times what we see is the Whore of Babylon. Christians, at least by what we can verify historically, have many times been the last to critique and first to defend. Capitalism becomes the new god they idolatrously christen as God.

I'm not saying Christians ought to be Communists. Rather, Christians should appreciate Communism, in Marxist and non-Marxist forms, has viciously assaulted the divine altar of Mammon and scratched it enough to show its fraudulent divinity. Of course, plenty of Christians ignore this. But they'd be fools to! Through Communism, God is at work in the world to make Christ shine in every corner.

And lest I am given stupid criticisms pointing to all the tin-pot dictators and the horrors of the Soviet Union and China who claim communism, it's not so simple. This is not a case of 'No-True-Scotsman', rather there are serious departures between ideology and its enactment. Leninism and Maoism were modified Marxist ideologies that were, in a sense, fraudulent alternatives built on a lust for power and control. But it's irrelevant if Communism actually works. It's what it accomplishes as an idea that is important.

What it does is destroy the power of the market. The Communist society and the Kingdom of Heaven share their erasure of the market from the center. Cost, efficiency, satisfaction, all of these things are meaningless before Paradise and its King.

But, some may say, what of pre-modern institutions? What of those who remained faithful to feudal monarchical thinking in light of the Enlightenment? The reason is that these lack any kind of utopian aspiration, no future or horizon worth directing oneself towards. In the static mire of an already-not yet, Feudal society baptized inequity as Christian and a so-called necessary part of life and social order.

But the Christian does not merely live in a time between times, but in a mode of hastening the day patiently. Or, as the Blumhardts put it, Waiting with Haste. The Christians is not to remain a conservative to the status quo, but offer a prophetic critique of all social evils, yet without the attempt to assume the power to eradicate them. The Christian must be quick to see the Bridegroom coming, to be awake for the thief in the night.

Happiness is a fiction of Capitalism, and Capitalism is the most potent head of the demon Mammon. If the Church is to continue her witness, we need to imagine a world without markets. That is the world Jesus Christ will usher in when He returns. Let us await that day of endless celebration, a dynamic abundance of life, joy towards more joy. Amen


  1. I appreciate this post. To my surprise last year I realised that my general method of critique had become quite Leftist - an unusual development considering my mindset only a year earlier. Have been spending some time with Capital vol. 1 and finding much to agree with.

    1. I wrote this piece in the midst of rather dark spot in my life. I'm not sure I'd completely agree to it, but it remains as a testament to where I've come from and where I keep going. I too have become more politically left, though not exactly as someone with a blueprint or a plan. And yet, unlike the above post, I'm not sure if I quite endorse the sentiments I was trying to express.

      This point includes my assessment of communism. I don't know if it properly scratches mammon, as I put it, because I don't know how well Marx actually understood economics. As a kind of secularized messianism, Marx should humiliate Christians, supposed or otherwise, who've become embarrassed with talk of apocalypse and eschaton. Marx is still keen to realize that there's still hope over the horizon, even if it's a hope that's purely materialistic and earthy. And yet, in terms of actual political assessment, Marx's theories have been, and most likely will remain, authoritarian nightmares. Even other contemporary socialists pegged Marx for a would-be tyrant. It might be a kick in the pants, but his eschatology is ultimately false and dangerous. And yet, as someone who is left, I still desire some concrete reforms. I prefer a kind of federalism as a means to prevent accumulation and disperse power, though faux-federal societies (like the US) have done a good job hiding the real centers of power through the same mechanisms that were intended to prevent it from occurring. But unlike the US federalism which was designed to protected the landed aristocracy and the merchant burghers, I'm more keen to emphasize unionism and worker collectives to be a site of political decision making. If private property can't be abolished (and I don't think it can, nor do I think it the place of Christians to legally pursue this option, even if they functionally pursue it in their own lives and among their own congregations), then the best I hope for is some kind of offset to prevent owners, stockholders, and managers from possessing all of the power, which they then wield to shape the economy and possess political power.

      Also, I'm not so keen on my previous infatuation with Nyssenne infinite progression. I think Maximus offers a better solution, maintaining both a kind of dynamism and static rest in how he conceives of paradise as orbital movement. We're not endlessly pursuing an infinite God, but we reach a height of proximity, of which we endlessly spin around. In less metaphysical speculation, it's to say that the New Jerusalem will be a place of endless wonder, and yet we can finally say we've arrived, we're home, without the anxiety or dread of the present age. Given the context in which I wrote the above post, I was justifying the mood of dread I had been in, and would be in, for awhile. I thought I had figured out that it was more normal than I had previously thought, but I think I was wrong.

    2. Agreed - Leftism as critique, not as solution. Although the interior society of the church could do with thinking up more radical ways to provide for each other.