Thursday, April 19, 2018

it may gain such hegemony that it comes to be regarded as normal and there really is no dissent

After I extolled the radicalism of that recent talk of Walter Brueggemann here the other day I listened to it again and this passage from the first few minutes really jumped out at me.  I've decided to transcribe it from the recording and to go over several points, making one slight disagreement on one thing and pointing out some further applications of what was said.

I take preaching to be a word of life in a world that is bent on death . . . 

The phrase "a world that is bent on death" might seem over the top but look at just about the entire culture of the West and its fascination with death and violence, and if not with that then denying that life, even our minds have any significance over that of inanimate objects.  In my lifetime I've seen the culture of the United States go from the macho-death worshiping culture of the militarized post-war period, the arms buildup, the nuclear sword of Damocles constructed over all of life to the reaction to that in the late 60s and early 70s, feminism, the kind of man personified by the Alan Alda, probably reaching its high point with the attempt at a moral presidency by Jimmy Carter, and the enforced reaction against that, the public relations campaign of derision of its weakness and femininity and more than just implied association of that with latent homosexuality in order to suppress that.  The ever increasing fascism of that reaction is what we are in the middle of right now.  It is so powerful that it not only dominated straight culture but it pretty much dominates gay culture, now, as well.

So, first of all extended comments on context which will be about half of my presentation.  In six points.  First I take the word “totalism” from Robert Lifton who has studied the absolutizing regimes of National Socialism in Germany and the war machine in Japan.  Lifton understands a totalizing regime as one that wants to gain a monopoly of technology and a monopoly of imagination so that nothing is thinkable or sayable or imaginable or doable outside of the totalism, The totalism may be coercive in a way that punishes any dissent or eventually it may gain such hegemony that it comes to be regarded as normal and there really is no dissent.

I would associate this with the rise of scientism, also in reaction to the loosening of that totalism in the culture of the late 60s and early 70s, the aggressive and suppressive organized atheists - they call themselves "skeptics" - and its largely successful campaign to make many things unthinkable, unsayable, or unimaginable or undoable.   Though that campaign worked most effectively on those with a stake in that hegemonic totalism in the media and in academia, its success with the majority of people in the United States is far more mixed.  I think the new atheism of the post 9-11 period is its high point up till now.   It is heavily invested in the same system.

So my judgement is that we now live in the United States in the totalism of market ideology in which nothing is imaginable outside the reach of the market.  Thus the market has morphed from a venue for the exchange of goods to a regulatory principle that governs all social relationships as real social relationships are monetized, persons are cast as commodities and inevitably there are dispensable persons in a monetized system.  So it's easy to see how this relates to the theme of racism because those who run the totalism are ready to make Blacks dispensable because they do not produce enough to qualify for the monetized system.   

Here I both agree and disagree with Brueggemann.   I think it had great validity, in par during the period before the rise of the international market system before they sent so many jobs from the United States to oversees.  When Thomas Huxley wrote his putrid response to the Emancipation Proclamation, that now the slave owners and white people in general would, finding no economic utility in black people,  they would feel it was advantageous for them to exterminate the former slaves, which he presented as a scientifically reliable inevitability.  And others certainly followed suit, though the reimposition of de facto slavery in Jim Crow made that idea moot, or it did until the modern Civil Rights movement.  I've come to see the Jim Crow period and system as just an informal, extra-legal reestablishment of slavery and that the aspirations of the present day Republicans is to turn back any progress made fifty years ago. Huxley also underestimated how readily black people would be absorbed in the wage-slave system that that kept white and other workers in conditions of virtual slavery if not actual slavery in such systems as share cropping and company store towns and non-unionized factories by generalizing desperate near destitution and destitution as a threat to hold over workers.

Now, I think the more relevant phenomenon of racism is more a tactic of playing poor white people off of poor black people,  Latinos, etc. in order to use them to gain political and legal control.  That is certainly how Republicans used racism to win in virtually every election they have prevailed in since 1968, its worst forms made even more useful to Republicans after the election of Barack Obama.  In that scenario it's a question of relative value to those who control the totalism.  If black people were of more utility to them than white people, they would have no hesitation to set up that in another way, as, in fact, the dictatorship of Robert Mugabe did and which may be the way that South Africa is going.  Though it's possible that they will opt for economic justice, which I hope for and which was needed in both countries, not to mention here, I'm not hopeful.  In other countries the uses of ethnic rivalry by those who have only a hope of rising in the totalitarian system, will vary as local conditions present them with opportunities.

The ideology of the market touches everything.  It seeks to assure the good life measured in marketable goods.  It depends on a strong military to assure the disproportionate flow of goods and it relies on a doctrine of exceptionalism to legitimate a guaranteed line of endless satiation as a gift to God for God's chosen people.  

In short, the conformity that has been taught to us by TV and the movies and general coercion since the glorification of war in the post-Vietnam period, perhaps a lot of it in reaction to Alan Alda's M.A.S.H. Something which even many formerly anti-war celebrities have participated in and which made the careers of many a second rater.  As George M. Cohen said,  the flag has saved many a bum show.  I can guarantee you that dissent on those was far more possible a half-century ago than it is today.

In order to test the grip of that totalism that is intolerant of dissent one on only need to try to critique the US military or US exceptionalism in any local congregation that I know.  You cannot do it and you must.

That, "you must" points out that the Church is about the only hope we really have for an influential institution to bring up these things, to oppose them.  Only they're going to have to do a lot better job and it isn't going to be easy or safe or fun.   I have pointed out that even the most reactionary of Popes, John Paul II and Bernard XVI, in their economic writings, in their writings on war and peace, in their opposition to things like capital punishment are radicals as opposed to even the most liberal of American politicians, though their appointments to the American hierarchy have belied that line of moral teachings.   Protestants have certainly had a similar record of success and lack of success in following that moral imperative. 

I will point out that the Black Churches, many other congregations and even some in Catholicism and mainline Protestant have lived up to it.  When the Reverend Jeremiah Wright gave his most controversial sermons, what made people the angriest was exactly in those lines.   You're never going to get that in secularism. Certainly not in any politically effective way.  The secular left was tried and failed, abjectly.

1 comment:

  1. The idea of "market ideology" predates the 19th century, at least. Swift refers to it in his "modest proposal" in the late 18th century when his narrator's solution to Irish poverty is to give the poor something to sell: their children. It's an argument cast in perfect "market" terms that are recognizable today, from giving the poor "access" to "the market" (by selling their infant children as food), to how they could achieve an ROI on the child (the argument compares it to the raising of pigs, cows, and sheep as livestock), to the "multiplier effect" of this new source of food on other trades (butchers, taverns, etc.), as well as, of course, simply giving the poor money to spend on clothes, housing, and food themselves.

    The sharpest barb of Swift's satire is that this way of "solving" the problems of society is what people were doing then, and what we do now: treating human beings as commodities to be bought and sold and consumed. His proposal just makes it more honest (he says at one point that landlords have already consumed their tenants metaphorically, and might as well be more direct about it). Even in Jesus' time, when there was no "market" as we understand it. Joseph as carpenter was not a tradesman represented by a construction union. A carpenter today sits atop a hierarchy that may seem puny to white collar workers, but is a place of distinction in the construction trades. Carpenters in Joseph's day were beggars with tools, hoping to obtain a patron who would provide trade in exchange for their labor. They were little better off than fishermen, who also didn't have a regulated market in which to all their goods, but could only hope to eke out a subsistence living again by appeasing the servants of the patron who came for the family's food for that day. Exploitation by the market is just a more efficient system of distributing exploitation among the masses. This is as old as Isaiah's offer to buy food without money and wine without price on God's holy mountain, in the vision of Israel as a light to the world.