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.

Posted in Communism, eschatology. Comments Off on A counter-reading of the 20th century

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.]

Posted in economics, eschatology. Comments Off on Left behind

An end of politics?

Is it possible or desirable to conceive an end to politics? Many theorists on the left today are fixated on “the political,” reemphasizing it in an effort to counter the spurious “end of politics” represented by neoliberal globalization — and I think that’s proper and necessary, as is the development of political strategies. What I wonder, though, is whether all this line of thought goes too far in positing a completely inescapable and interminable political struggle.

Agamben memorably calls the idea of an eternal economy/governance/management “hellish” in The Kingdom and the Glory, and it seems like an eternal political struggle would be, if anything, even moreso.

New Issue of Political Theology

The newest issue of Political Theology is now available. I bring this to your attention as it contains excellent articles by some of our own — see Brad Johnson’s “Doing Justice to Justice” and Anthony Paul Smith’s “The Judgment of God and the Immeasurable.” Check them out.

The Future, or The Society of Looting

Give me back the Berlin Wall
Give me Stalin and St. Paul
I’ve seen the future, brother:
It is murder
— Leonard Cohen

That has long been one of my favorite quotations, and I’m convinced that it becomes truer by the day. We have all seen the future, because the horizon of the future is closer than ever before — in fact, I am unaware of an individual or institution that seems able to project any kind of future further than about two years at the very most.

Read the rest of this entry »


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