Tuesday, February 7, 2017

A Machine For Itself: Liberalism, the Sovereignty, and the Suspension of the Choice

I am a critic of Liberalism, but I suppose I ought to explain this more in detail. What I define as Liberal is an intentional move to secularize the common and the public. Or, in other words, to remove explicitly theological and eschatological questions from public discourse and debate, and thus removing them from policy. Liberalism is a political order that emerged from the Enlightenment.

While the Enlightenment remains a nebulous term, I still find it useful. Contrary to popular opinion and common mythology, the Enlightenment was not about the rise of reason and science (whatever those mean) against revelation and faith. This construction owes mostly to Romantic social critics who desired to move back towards simpler times, with odes to Nature and the emotional, and aesthetic, happiness of dancing with the gods. Rather, the Enlightenment was a concerted response to a particular historical set of events. In the wake of the Thirty Years War (1618-1648) and the English Revolution (1641-1660), many public intellectuals feared another confessional, near apocalyptic, war. This resulted in the near collapse of all social institutions. There were a range of responses to this, ranging from a doubling down on the establishment of a church along secularized reasons to calls for the abolition of all churches and priesthoods.

Liberalism was one response to this, an attempt to relativize all theological claims and keep them away from public policy decisions. Replacing these, if we can call it that, intellects sought for other common links that social bounds could be founded upon. The clearest was one of the basest: Trade. The difference between classical Liberalism and neo-Liberalism is degree, scope, and method, but they share a commitment to the principle of wealth as the shared assumption upon which a society can be maintained. The idea is that the material existence of Man can be calculated and empirically demonstrated, whereas spiritual truth cannot. Thus, economic policies, and debate, can be locked into a shared sense of accumulation of wealth.

Liberalism goes hand-in-hand with Capitalism, but also forms of Socialism. Classical Liberalism of Adam Smith advocated a sense of interest-based self-survival as the mechanism of mutual prosperity. Thus if we stop meddling with people's trade efforts, people working for themselves against others will actually benefit the all. Within this model many discussions took place. Evangelicals advocated for a moral trade, arguing that virtuous people will make wealth distribute for the benefit of all, and hence the need to enforce moral standards in social policies. Mandeville in his Fable of the Bees argued the opposite, vice and corruption actually keeps society wealthy and stable, virtue breeds poverty and thus social disintegration. Both depend upon a shared commitment.

Even Marxists agree with the Liberal conception of the world. The Bourgeois Revolution must precede the Worker's Revolution. The merchants, businessmen, and owners of Capital must banish God, and whatever theological sanctions for government, for the purposes of installing the sacred rights of property. Classical Marxists applaud the advances of Liberal Capitalism as a step closer to its inevitable demise.

 Many of Marx's followers and readers disagree with this eschatological optimism, with Social Democrats seeking to reform the excesses of Liberalism's Capitalist order and Leninists, among others, believing the Worker's Revolution won't start without a push. This is crucial because, as we today as we can see in turn-of-the-century Germany or in 1917 Russia, the engines of Capitalism don't seem anywhere close to exhaust. In part, this is because Liberalism has reached, and remains, in a state of crisis.

The root source of Liberalism is a suspension of the roots, it is self-abnegation of the political choice. This is, fundamentally, the critique Carl Schmitt leveled at Liberalism. It can't go on forever suspending a decision, exiling it to an infinite deferral in parliamentary debate and public opinion poll. As Schmitt saw it, Europe was verging towards a choice, whether of its own making or from the barbarians outside of the gate. Schmitt believed the latter was the Communist threat, the growing influence of Leninist political theory where the workers must rise up and seize. Schmitt was, for this reason, attracted to Hitler, because here was a man and a party, otherwise abhorrent and odious to Schmitt, who was willing to make the choice. Hitler was willing to assume sovereignty in his person in order to defend Europe.

Schmitt is one of the most brilliant political theorists because he recognized the illusory and magical sleight of hand Liberalism had provided. It buried the questions of theology by disguising them in questions couched and assumed to be devoid of all theological import. Class divisions, hierarchies of merit, parliamentary democracy, colonialism and racialization, all of these are built on something. Despite many efforts, we can't bury the fact that the heroes of science all were men of faith, whether it was orthodox or heterodox, Evangelical or staid Establishmentarian. The reasons for society are theological and when they are challenged from the outside, whether by Communists or otherwise, they must be ravenously reasserted. Thus to save Europe, Europe must bear its theological fangs and tear the enemies of God to pieces.

Now Schmitt believed Europe's fate does not lie in its Liberal heritage, that was a strange interlude. He was an unorthodox, but heartily devoted, Roman Catholic, and he believed in the old Prussian aristocracy. However, Schmitt may be read heuristically to understand what is happening in the world. The Neo-Liberal world order is hard to define, but lets say it is a commitment to a form of global finance capitalism, built upon a burgeoning new form of state formation, based on market and not on nation. Thus, New York, London, and Brussels share a more common citizenship than, say, New York and Nowhere, Kansas. Some theorists see the US as the first state to begin the transition, though this hardly complete or absolute, and is merely conceptual to make sense of the bizarre nationalism of cosmopolitan corporations.

Liberalism, I argue, has become the cloak and facade of this world-order. The suspension of the choice in public policy is really a means of cloaking the actual choices being made. Schmitt defined sovereignty as the ability to determine friend and foe, those marked for life and vitality and the 'other' marked for destruction and deprivation. The needs of the global market supply the list of friend and foe that the US government many times willingly follows. This is an open conspiracy. The presidency of Donald Trump has thrown a wrench in forging this world-order, but it is a Behemoth whose strength still remains mostly submerged in the Oceans of Global Finance, Military Contractors, and Intelligence Collection.

Liberalism as the historic suspension of the choice to prevent confessional violence has become the very mechanism to promote, provoke, and to enact the worst kinds of horror, brutality, and annihilation. This is not a recent phenomenon, but one that has grown with the rise of Liberalism. Whatever good the Liberal idea of suspending the choice was, it was quickly coopted for a new political theology. In the Bible the shadow of this god is revealed to be none other than Mammon, Wealth. Liberalism is a mechanism that has lost all justification, but has secretly been providing its own justification all along. The ownership of global capital by a cadre of elites has been for the purposes of imagining the world at the behest of this Moloch. Outward social stability, or its appearance, has become the mechanism to feed children into the maw of this horrid god. Contrary to Marx, this machine will not break-down on its own. We will, to use the words of William Cavanaugh, keep killing for the telephone company.

There's something to take away from Liberalism's motives, even if it is a defunct system that should be opposed. It wanted to remove sovereignty from political equations. This was similar to a number of Christian radicals who opposed the Ancien Regime of the Stuart Monarchs. John Eliot, that "Apostle to the Indians", wrote in support of the Revolution that "Christ is the only right Heir of the Crown of England". Fundamentally, Eliot believed sovereignty belonged to Christ the Lord. What this meant exactly to him is not relevant to this discussion. Instead, this is the position we Christians ought to take. In our own political decisions (even not voting is a political act), we must consider the question of sovereignty. If Christ has assumed to Himself the right to judge the sheep from the goat, and He has reserved to Himself the time, unknown even to Him, of His Coming Judgement, then we too should support all efforts to suspend the choice.

Schmitt understood the nature of Sovereignty, even if he was, typical of Romanist theology, a syncretized pagan, and thus basically wanted a revival of the divine right of monarchs. But we who serve Christ must see the sovereign choice as belonging to Him and Him alone. This is what fuels my own idiosyncratic Socialist politics. There is no place for Christians to serve Liberalism, propping up the order of Mammon. We need to abandon this machine for the God's destructive, but liberative, judgement. In all the ways that we can, we must work to suspend the choice. All social orders are open and insufficient, we await our King from on High.



  1. some of this reminds me of stuff I've been reading in music history and musicology over the last five years. I'm reminded of Leonard Meyer's observation in 1967 that for a long time the ideology that promoted pluralism was more culturally dominant than observable pluralism in the West but that this changed. There's more pluralism in cultures than the Western ideology of pluralism can readily assimilate. What was interesting to read was Meyer noted that the musicians who were most pronounced in the early 20th century avant garde were really, really traditionalist in their religious views. Schoenberg was Jewish, Stravinsky was Orthodox. If we throw in T. S. Eliot he was a royalist and Pound obviously embraced fascism. Richard Taruskin's campaign over the last twenty years has been to point out that the idea of art for the sake of art is popular with the academy because the Western academy, tending left as it does, is loathe to admit just how many indisputably influential Western avant gardists were openly sympathetic to totalitarian regimes. Stravinsky praised Mussolin right before war broke out and then grumpily said he could live with Truman. But Stravinsky's aristocratic background's easy to look up. Tangential to that I'm reminded of a quote from Sherman Alexie where he said the billionaires of old may have been racist white assholes who owned slaves and killed Indians but they did, at least, have social responsibility enough to be philanthropists and Alexie's at a loss to find the philanthropic quests of the new generation of billionaires that isn't getting more money, with possible exceptions like Bill Gates.

    This is more of a sideways riff of stuff I'm thinking of writing about later but in a way Francis Schaeffer was kind of like a Theodore Adorno for Anglo-American cultural criticism. It's like Anglo-American evangelicalism has cobbled together its own version of the Frankfurt school with Francis Schaeffer, C. S. Lewis and G. K. Chesterton thrown in for good measure.

    1. It makes sense that the avant garde would be attracted to such. There is hardly a beautiful thing about debate, compromise, and making money. Fichte was a powerful Romantic poet and the archetypal Nationalist for a united Germany. Our own literature and fantasy is drenched in wars of kings, arcane knowledge and wizardry, and elite warrior bands. Most Americans intuitively understand why fascism is attractive, even if they won't admit it.

      There was for a time a sense of noblesse oblige in how moneyed aristocracy functioned. This is clear in the old South's Plantation Nobility. The Robber Barons even tried to function like this, but quickly unleashed a storm of Progressives and Populists who wanted to break the power of a WASP(ish) aristocracy of wealth and prestige. This is the system I'm describing in part.

      The difference is that Schaeffer and Lewis, for the most part, misunderstood the social currents in the 20th century. But they are the bread and butter for Evangelicals touting a "world-view".

  2. What's interesting about Schaeffer is that he wildly bungled art history and social history but to some degree I think he gets a pass from within evangelicalism because 1) he argued art could not be autonomous (and, ironically, this would be one of the few points where he'd explicitly overlap with someone like Adorno) and 2) while he botched a lot of history he did perceive something people in the Frankfurt school sounded off on, which was that with the collapse of Christian Europe art tried and failed to present itself as a substitute post-Christian civil religion. So I'm thinking that perhaps instead of reading "just" Frankfurt types or the Anglo-American posse off Schaeffer, Lewis & Chesterton we could have people cross examining the two different critiques of contemporary Western thought.

    1. I see what you're saying. I guess the difference is what Schaeffer (vs. the Frankfurt school) would say what this means. He was apoplectic about the heritage of Christian Europe in danger, and hence converted a whole generation (and on) of Fundamentalists who sneered at Western cultural accomplishments. Now we have Evangelicals who now praise the Middle Ages.

      I could get behind people reading Chesterton. I think Schaeffer and Lewis are too toxic because they're familiar and are assumed to already be right. I don't think they have much to offer besides the outline ideas that you already provided.

    2. But, to get to your real point, art for its own sake is a stop-gap to prevent the bleeding out of civilizational justification. It's a new religion that tries to live off of itself, but can't. Thus it retreats further and further away from life into the mausoleum of academic dispute, offending real artists who find inspiration and majesty in social movements that challenge the prevailing winds. In this way, the art for art's sake is a lie, like Liberalism, that tried to save what it had murdered. Terry Eagleton has a good book about this.

    3. Culture and the Death of God