Saturday, December 31, 2016

The Technician's Providence: The Political Theology of Deism and Liberalism's Quiet Holocaust

Carl Schmitt argued in his work Political Theology that, "all significant concepts of the modern theory of the state are secularized theological concepts not only because of their historical development[...]but also because of their systematic structure". In other words, it was the same social conditions that generated theological concepts of God and the God-World relationship and political and legal theories. The two can be analyzed together to explain the meaning of the other.

From this, Schmitt argues, "the idea of the modern constitutional state triumphed together with deism, a theology and metaphysics that banished the miracle from the world". This is framed in the context of the juristic concept of the exception, breaking the rule to prove and preserve the rule, the grey boundary outside of Creational control. A miracle operates in the same fashion. One requires an established norm of physical life that one transcend to show its stability and one's ability to overcome it for the sake of something else. Despite the norms of Human biology and medicine, Christ can touch a withered hand and restore it.

Deism and the rationalism of Enlightenment jurisprudence sought to eliminate what seemed to be absurd, ad hoc, interventions. Thus one finds, at first, a soft Deism, a Christian Deism, that tried to reorganize the miraculous of the Bible into some sort of magic, a deeper system of rules and regulations. Like the Technician, the Magician knows how to play the World better than the unlearned and uninitiated. But this was untenable, the stack of Christian dogmas being overturned led to the overturning of the whole system. Deism became anti-Christian in its pursuit of a more logical and systematic order. This did not just happen, but represented a principled attack upon the theological cacophony of the 17th century. This was the century of the (Protestant) Dutch war for Independence from (Catholic) Spain, the Thirty Years War between (Protestant) Northern German States and (Catholic) the Holy Roman Emperor. bolstered on many sides by material and spiritual support, and the English Revolution, where a (Church of England) King lost his head to (Independent/Congregationalist) Cromwellian Parliament. The liberal constitutional order, according to its theorists, sought to overcome this through the late 17th, 18th, and into the 19th centuries.

However, the same machinery of the State was employed by this new order, but arranged differently. The very Catholic, and theistic, Portuguese mass-slavery and baptism of the Kongoese, among others, was met with the same procedure by the Dutch and the English. The former wrapped their justification in theo-political language, following Medieval justification for conquest. The Kongoese submitted to the designs of their Catholic masters to tutor them in the faith, even as they were turned into functionally chattel and property. The latter did no such thing, yet committed the same acts. 

The nascent liberalism of these Protestant Empires voided these entities, trying to suppress the obvious Humanity of the slaves. It is why very liberal documents like the Declaration of Independence (America) and Declaration of the Rights of Man (France) fail to acknowledge the fact of mass slavery that existed on its shores. This is the short-circuit of contradiction that requires a kind of double-down. Either the slaves are to be freed or they are not Human. It is perhaps for this reason that Southern Planter-Elite turned to a kind of Medieval fantasy of being Chevaliers and Gentlemen, and many French Revolutionaries latched onto the Abbé Grégoire's theo-political idea of Regeneration. Both represent a back-peddling from the full-extent of a liberal world-order.

But this was not due to a contradiction, but conceptual immaturity. As one sees in the John Stuart Mill and the Utilitarian System of the Factory, they were not averse to slavery. The precision of the Taylor system sought to turn laborers into mechanized meat-bags. Given that individuals, like the wealthy bourgeois capitalist, can own the means of production, this is in a sense a form of owning people. Industrial wage-slavery was not better or worse than chattel slavery, it was just different.

But unlike the Medieval theology that undergirded Catholic slavery, this was a world without the miracle, and thus without the exception. The slave might escape slavery through the miracle of manumission, and if one reads Medieval hagiography, miracles were not so rare. But liberalism, in an effort to control an otherwise absurd and seemingly arbitrary world, close the loop. Slavery becomes intensified; it becomes permanent and inescapable. The late 18th century saw slavery intensify, whether it was in the liberal English monarchy of the Hannoverians or the Portuguese House of Braganza under the leadership of the Marquis of Pombal. This led to the crisis of the Declarations and the eventual growth of a more comprehensive liberal political theology.

I am not advocating a return to a medieval political theology, nor am I positively appraising the supposed benevolence of the exception in an order of oppression. But the liberal world-order did not stave off bloodshed, it merely quieted it and reduced it to the a kind of underground turbulence, like the flow of lava beneath the crust of the Earth. The extreme violence of this order was not fully unveiled until the First World War, which was truly a Technician's War, but one where calculations failed and the peaceable mask slipped. The latent Deism revealed itself to be a complete sham, and a horror too. The mass dead from the First World War ought to open our eyes to the oceans of blood they merely drift upon. What of the hundreds of thousands of slaves, wage-slaves, colonial subjects annihilated for the sake of a more precise and calm world, namely a European world.

This is not to advocate, either, for a kind of post-modern, multiculturalism, that respects people's cultures for their own integrity, whatever that means. For example, there is nothing good or just in an Indian caste system or Iroquoian Mourning Wars. Rather, my critique emerges from a more strictly Biblical view, namely a Christology that announces the suffering, death, and resurrection of the Messiah. The providence put on display in Job is not the same as Medieval Catholic providence or the deistic providence of the emerging liberal constitutional order. However, a quiet horror is perhaps worse than the loud one. It is easier to mistake the former for something other than the Babylon that it is.

1 comment:

  1. this reminds me of reading a passing comment Leonard Meyer had in Music, the Arts and Ideas in a 1990s reprint edition. He had a postlude essay in which he mused that the more explicitly secular/materialist Western society became the more emphatic the zero-sum game of social and economic inequality would become. The allegedly "intolerable" social and economic milieu of Indian society went on for millennia without upset, so apparently all that inequality was somehow tolerable. If there's no life after death then the battle to get what you think/feel you deserve from this life becomes the sum of all things.

    With application to music Meyer proposed that the West should not anticipate any new revolutions in musical organization. The old rules were broken and the new quest to find new conceptual constraints to guide artists are coming up with uncertain or literally unmemorable results (total serialism, for instance).

    In his book about the Romantic era Meyer went so far as to state that the Romantic era composers formally repudiated the conventions of the 18th century but THEY HAD NO ALTERNATIVES. So they PRETENDED to break the rules while really stratifying them to a degree that no one from Haydn's era would have dreamed of doing or even actually did. What on paper looked like an advocacy for the artist to follow their own muse turned out, in practice, to be biggie-sizing things to hide how formulaic things were becoming. It's helped me come to a clearer understanding why I love 18th and 20th century music but find a lot of 19th century music bloated and annoying (exceptions being made for Chopin and the early 19th century guitarist composers who were "breaking the rules" before German theorists had codified them yet).