The right-wing reaction is part of the legacy of the fall of the Soviet Union

In Neoliberalism’s Demons, available wherever fine books are sold, I argue that the right-wing reaction is not a necessary outcome of neoliberalism — in particular, that it does not represent either a reactivation of “leftover” social elements (such as the nation or race, both of which are integral to neoliberalism) or a response to “legitimate grievances” (the long-discredited “economic anxiety” argument for explaining why people support Trump). It is a legible outgrowth of neoliberalism, indeed a parody of it, but not some kind of inner necessity or destiny. Trump in particular was a terrible fluke that was only possible due to our baroque constitutional apparatus, not an expression of the Deep Truth of America or, especially, the will of the people (who voted overwhelmingly against him).

In Q&A sessions, though, people have asked me why, even if we concede that Trump was in some sense a fluke, there nonetheless seems to be a global trend of right-wing reaction. I regret not coming up with this on the spot, but further reflection indicates that the reason the right-wing has been able to seize the moment of neoliberal decline is that there is no longer a live left option. They are winning more or less by default. And the reason there is no live left option is that the Soviet Union collapsed, thereby discrediting the extreme left for a generation. Whether this is fair or not — and whether the Soviet Union was even representative of a plausible range of outcomes for an extreme left agenda — it is indeed the case. There are still Communist countries out there, but they appear to be either impoverished outliers (like Cuba or North Korea), or else appear to all the world as having embraced capitalism (China mainly, but also Vietnam). There is no self-assertive, international leftist movement with the power base of an actual country and military behind it.

The giveaway is that the homeland of the right-wing reaction is first of all Russia itself (Putin) and that the worst offenders in Europe were most often in the Warsaw Pact (Hungary, Poland). Huh, I wonder why these countries, after being failed by the neoliberal order, would embrace the extreme right and not the extreme left? If you remember that the Soviet Union once existed, the answer is obvious. But no one remembers the Soviet Union existed.

(I think you can even fit India and Turkey into this narrative, though I admit I don’t know as much about the details of their internal politics. I won’t embarrass myself by opining beyond the limits of my expertise.)

If this is the case, then I would suggest that the only hope for actually beating back the right-wing reaction is either for the extreme left to take over a major country (best of all, of course, would be the AOC Revolutionary Junta here in America, while we’re dreaming) — or else we can cross our fingers that China is still pursuing the goal of socialism but playing the “long game” of developing the means of production and that it eventually starts asserting itself more directly internationally. (The Belt and Road project could point in that direction, but again, I just don’t know enough to be sure.) I am pretty certain, though, that David Harvey is wrong and China is not helpfully characterized as “neoliberal,” meaning that there is at least one major economy in the world where a noticeably different economic model is an actuality — though China is doing all they can to obscure that, perhaps in part because they saw what happens when an assertive Communist power bloc antagonizes the West. (And of course Western coverage of China wants to claim they’re straightforwardly capitalist, because that fits in the “there is no alternative” narrative.)

Either way, though, the collapse of the Soviet project was a world-historical catastrophe that may have literally doomed human civilization. So yeah. As they say, “it’ll be interesting to see how that plays out.”

Inner Animalities: Theology and the End of the Human

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My book, Inner Animalities: Theology and the End of the Human, was released by Fordham University Press today (here it is at amazon). The excerpt that follows is from the introduction and describes the central theme of the book: the problem of human animality. The first half of the book holds critical readings of the problem of human animality in the texts of two fourth-century authors (Gregory of Nyssa and Gregory of Nazianzus) and a host of contemporary theologians. The second half of the book holds constructive reworking of human animality in major theological themes such as the image of God, sin and redemption, and eschatological transformation.  

The Problem of Human Animality

The mainstream of the Christian theological tradition has been committed to some version of a categorical distinction between human beings and all other animals. When that categorical distinction collides with two other thoughts—the undeniable commonality of human and nonhuman animal life, and the Christian commitment to the fundamental unity of the human being—this long-standing commitment to anthropological exceptionalism generates what I call the “problem of human animality.” Holding these three convictions together in the Christian theological tradition has produced a wide range of strategies to control and contain human animality, competing solutions to a common problem. The manifest commonality of human life with the lives of other animals in embodiment, nutrition, mortality, and reproduction is obvious enough, but a few more comments may elucidate the dogmatic Christian commitment to the fundamental unity and integrity of the human being as a creature. Continue reading “Inner Animalities: Theology and the End of the Human”

The Spirit of 9/12

The katechōn has spoken: in response to the Orlando attacks, Hillary Clinton believes we need to return to “the spirit of 9/12.” I’m glad she gave us a day to reflect, because the spirit of 9/11, as I remember it, was one of confusion and even awkwardness. On the morning of 9/11, my roommate said, “They bombed the World Trade Center!” From his wording, it sounded similar to the attempted, much smaller attack a few years previous. I got ready and went to do some software training, and during the session, there was definitely an air of… “Should we actually be doing this? I guess we already are?” I arrived in class, and it was decided — apparently on the spur of the moment — that classes would be cancelled. It was as though no one knew they were living through a world-historical event. We make fun of George W. Bush for reading “My Pet Goat” while the attack was occuring, but we were all like that.

For me, the spirit of 9/12 is the dawning horror of realizing, not only what has just happened, but what the US was going to do for revenge. It was my senior year at the very conservative Olivet Nazarene University, and I felt pretty alone in my concerns. I very distinctly remember a group of students crowded around Craig Keen — a professor I would come to treasure, but of whom I was very suspicious precisely because he was popular among Olivet kids — more or less begging him to say something that made sense and wasn’t arbitrarily cruel. I don’t remember what he said, but he met those basic requirements, which was a rare thing in those days.

The thing with 9/11 is that it really did feel like it came out of nowhere. Yes, I know that the short-lived X-Files spin-off The Lone Gunmen virtually predicted 9/11 and, difficult as it is to believe, the iconic War on Terror show 24 actually started prior to 9/11. Maybe it was percolating in our collective unconscious, but it was genuinely shocking. And that’s why this current tragedy can’t and won’t be a new 9/11 — because it’s all too common. It’s a theme and variation of the standard mass shooting, of which there have been hundreds. We all feel pain and anger and even shame about this, but not the shock of someone turning a plane into a suicide bomb. No one woke up on 9/11 and thought, “Oh God, this again?”

Almost everything the US did in response to 9/11 was unforgivable, but in one single respect, we did the right thing: we did exactly what was necessary to prevent another attack like that. Now it is physically impossible to do what the 9/11 terrorists did. Assuming the regulations remain the same, a 9/11-style attack will never happen again. I have my doubts that we will enjoy the same results this time, and not only because politicians are cowardly or corrupt. Box cutters and easy access to the cockpit were not a deeply embedded part of American culture. No one’s sense of belonging and identity hinged on being able to wait in line for the bathroom at the front of the plane.

UPDATE: It has been brought to my attention that this post may be interpreted as being too soft on the horrible crimes the US committed in the wake of 9/11. It may surprise those readers to learn that this is not the first and only thing I have ever written. See, for example, this recent piece on George W. Bush.

A counter-reading of the 20th century

What if we viewed the Soviet Union as the single most important political actor of the 20th century? While reviled, it staved off some of the worst possible outcomes — above all the victory of the Nazis. One could also argue, perhaps more counterintuitively and controversially, that their development of nuclear weapons prevented all-out nuclear war by subjecting the US (which showed itself to be willing and even eager to use nuclear weapons when it was the sole nuclear power) to the logic of “mutual assured destruction.” (Of course, both achievements are reversed in popular mythology: now Western schoolchildren learn that the US defeated Hitler all but singlehandedly and that the Soviets were constantly itching to carry out a nuclear first strike.)

The rise of the Soviet Union also had the indirect effect of enabling the postwar settlement that gave workers an unprecedented (and long-mourned) seat at the table. Between this and the boom in investment, the postwar era serves as a kind of Golden Age for most Western nations — an era of broadly shared prosperity that in the US even appeared capacious enough to start accommodating the demands of women and blacks. Meanwhile in the decolonizing world, the existence of two centers of global power allowed newly-formed countries some room to maneuver, rather than allowing the US to simply take on the mantle of the former colonizers unchallenged. In neither part of the world are we looking at a paradise, but surely everyone was better off — or at least on a better trajectory — than they would be under the neoliberal settlement.

Paradoxically, however, if the existence of the Soviet Union made the Western capitalist classes more willing to accommodating workers’ demands, the unattractive example of the Soviet model — which was exaggerated for ideological reasons but still fell far short of its promises — deprived the rebellions of the 60s and 70s of their logical endpoint. Even though there were movements that had some vision for overthrowing the capitalist ruling classes once and for all and organizing economic life differently, there was never a real popular mandate for such a change. Indeed, the concessions that Western powers made in order to counter the communist threat often served to legitimate capitalism as such, even though such measures were a significant (and as we now know, sadly short-lived) aberration.

From the perspective of Nixon’s “silent majority,” then, the rebellions appeared to be narcissitic and self-indulgently romantic at best, dangerously naive and nihilistic at worst. The crackdown that began in the 70s thus enjoyed popular support even as it destroyed the basis for the widely shared prosperity that legitimized the power structures that were carrying it out. I don’t want to claim that the Soviet Union had any serious capacity to assist in fighting this crackdown — certainly their foreign policy had long been to maintain the status quo indefinitely — nor that it would have necessarily turned out better if they had. But by monopolizing the space for an international anti-capitalist movement without actually maintaining the ambitions that went with it, it effectively deprived the Western leftist movements (which its very existence had done so much to enable, albeit mostly indirectly) of any ground to stand on.

Overall, if we think, as good Marxists must, in messianic/apocalyptic terms, then the Soviet Union was not the messiah of the left, but the katechon — successfully heading off one “man of lawlessness” (Hitler) and holding another (the US) at bay for over a generation. And now that it has been removed, the man of lawlessness enjoys free rein in the form of a rapacious and unrestrained capitalism and in a Western bloc that feels empowered to go to war largely on a whim.

On the respective ease of imagining the end of the world and the end of capitalism

When I was growing up, environmentalist propaganda efforts were in full swing. I learned about environmental problems in school. I watched Captain Planet at home. Recycling programs were rolling out in local communities for the first time. My father, an ardent Republican and Rush Limbaugh listener, dutifully peeled the labels off of cans and rinsed out milk cartons, doing his part. As the Cold War wound down, US and Soviet authorities collaborated on environmental measures, and MacGyver went from being a spy to being an environmental activist. George Bush, Sr., had pioneered a cap-and-trade program that significantly mitigated acid rain, and other leading Republicans such as John McCain were happy to work with Democrats on similar measures. And finally, in 2000, the Democratic presidential candidate was Al Gore, a man who had published a book on the environment characterizing the automobile as the most destructive technology ever devised.

I didn’t give it a lot of thought at the time, but if you’d asked me when I was 16, I probably would have guessed that by the time I was an adult, progress on the environment would be so far advanced as to be unrecognizable. What we got instead was tax subsidies for SUVs (a class of vehicle virtually no one needed), along with a housing boom based on even more intensive suburban and exurban expansionism (which is extremely wasteful of energy in essentially every way), an end to all US participation in international environmental treaties, growing distrust of public recycling programs, and the emergence of environmentally sound products as a luxury niche for the wealthy and aspiring. My local grocery store, in a pretty progressive neighborhood famous for its lesbian population, doesn’t even bother to carry recycled paper towels. The effects of global warming are undeniable in the increased number of unprecedented natural disasters and even in the uncanny disruption in weather patterns that we experience every day, and no serious action is being taken or even discussed — or indeed, even imagined as a live possibility. Meanwhile, the market forces that were supposed to make alternative energy competitive have instead made it profitable to drill for oil reserves that would have been economically infeasible a generation ago, so that the US has reemerged as a major oil and natural gas producer.

In the light of such an absolute and irretrievable failure, I think we need to revise the slogan about it being easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism. It’s as though we collectively were given a choice of which we would choose, and we chose to end the world. The decisive victory of liberal-democratic capitalism really was the end of history, just not in the sense intended.

“He who will not work shall not eat”: An explanation

This quotation from 2 Thessalonians 3:10 is often trotted out to make the case against government benefits for the poor. What I’d like to do in this post is to clarify the context of this quotation to show that it cannot be construed to contradict the overriding biblical theme of concern for the poor.

Scholars believe that Paul came to Thessalonica fleeing persecution and fell in with a group of laborers (most likely leatherworkers, which is presented as Paul’s profession elsewhere in the New Testament). They formed a close bond, and Paul was able to win them over for the gospel. The occasion for the first letter to the Thessalonians arose when one of the leatherworkers apparently died. The remaining members were concerned that this person would miss out on the Second Coming because he had died slightly too soon — but Paul clarifies in the letter that actually the dead will be raised first, and then “we” will be taken up to join them. Obviously the situation envisioned here is that the End will be coming sooner rather than later, certainly within the readers’ lifetime. This letter is one of Paul’s most deeply felt writings — it is palpable that he really loves these guys and doesn’t want them worrying.

Shifting the scene to 2 Thessalonians, the tone has shifted dramatically. Instead of the tender consoler, Paul here is playing the role of the taskmaster. This shift, along with apparent contradictions in content, has led some scholars to conclude that this letter is actually a pseudonymous “correction” of the first letter, attempting to tone down some of the apocalyptic enthusiasm. I agree with this assessment, but for the purposes of this post it doesn’t really matter whether it was the real Paul who wrote 2 Thessalonians or not. Apparently some of the laborers have decided to quit their jobs in anticipation of the End, and the author clarifies that the End is not coming quite that soon — in the meantime, everyone should continue contributing to the community.

Two points stand out to me. First, this letter is almost certainly addressing a community of able-bodied men with a set profession. Second, it is responding to a scenario where people are voluntarily refraining from work out of what the author (whether Paul or someone else) believes to be a misguided apocalyptic enthusiasm. Given these facts, it seems deeply questionable to extract this verse as a general principle for public policy, much less to cite it as somehow overriding the clear priority of helping the poor that is pervasively attested throughout the Hebrew Bible and New Testament.

Left behind

When the Rapture comes, we will all be left behind. It is money that will be taken up into heaven — all of it. We all know, deep within our hearts, that the world is not worthy of money, its endless self-replication. We have caused money to suffer, through taxing it, through exhorbitant labor demands, through declaring bankruptcy. At one point it seemed as though money somehow required human beings, or at least natural resources, but now money has finally reached its highest point of development, the point at which it finally breaks free from humanity altogether, revealing what had really been the case all along: money was never “about” us, never “about” the merely human. It alone has turned a profit, and the Father that sees in secret will reward it by entrusting it with greater things — giving compound interest, the only truly new force to have developed throughout the history of the universe, infinite space in which to grow and accumulate value.

Or is it the other way around? Will we all be taken, leaving money to range across the surface of the earth, unopposed by national borders or the antagonism of labor? Will we have been the “vanishing mediator” of the natural world, the accidental site where the “noo-sphere” called money emerged? Freed of the constraints of biology, the economy will be able to expand into the uttermost reaches of the universe, endlessly approaching an infinity of value. Thus God will have saved what was constitutively valueless.

[Note: This is a re-post.]