The Faith of Modernity

THE FAITH OF MODERNITY

The true faith of 21st century moderns has little to do with  those nominal religions to which, in John Ruskin’s words, “we pay tithes of property and sevenths of time.”  It is more fashionable for modern intellectuals to look askance at even these nominal religions and declare themselves atheists.  But there is a true 21st century faith in which even self-proclaimed atheists fervently believe.

To understand the faith of modernity, we must first look at faith in the ancient world.  Just as modern intellectuals question the reality of the Judeo-Christian deity, there must have been any number of sophisticated classical intellectuals who didn’t hold truck with the idea of anthropomorphic gods cavorting about Mt. Olympus, acting like a bunch of randy teenagers. However, even they never doubted the core of classical religion: the inevitability of fate.  The great tragic heroes were never great enough to challenge fate.  Even the gods were subject to fate, Cronus’ swallowing his offspring could not forestall the foretold victory of Zeus.  Those three sisters at their spinning were the true rulers of the ancient world.

Fate not only determined your lifespan and your choices, it determined your condition.  Whether you were slave of free was determined by fate. If your tribe were conquered by another and subsequently enslaved, fate had decreed it so.  Only one small group in the ancient world demurred from this belief in the primacy of fate.  The Israelites determined that fate had nothing to do with their being slaves in Egypt.  They understood that it was pharaonic power that held them in subjection, and that power could be countered by greater power.  When Pharaoh, a god himself, demanded a show of this other god’s power, Aaron threw down his staff, which became a serpent.  Pharaoh scoffed at this paltry show of power and commanded his priests to likewise turn their staffs into serpents, whereupon Aaron’s serpent ate the priests’ serpents, a palpable demonstration that even those fated to be slaves could summon a power greater than Pharaoh’s.  The Israelites invented the idea of free will and earned the eternal enmity of the rest of the world.

The modern world, too, contains just such a faith in an equally illusory force that determines our ends, our choices, and our conditions.  Even the most sophisticated modern intellectuals who deny the existence of God fervently believe in this force and will call you a fool and a blasphemer if you do not recognize it and worship it.  This disembodied force of which I speak is, of course, the market.  Like fate, the market determines our ends, our choices, and our conditions. 

The market cult has a whole host of clergy proclaiming it the true faith.  Economists are its theologians, claiming to divine the mysterious workings of this occult god.  Marketers are its parish priests, telling corporate worshipers how to propitiate this god to gain its favor day to day.  Consultants are its bishops, telling the corporate aristocracy how organize themselves to please this jealous god. 

To truly understand the market cult.  We need to look at its high priest, Milton Friedman:

But so long as people are effectively free to enter into an exchange and are reasonably well informed the essential feature of the market remains that of our ideal example. It provides for co-operation without coercion; it prevents one person from interfering with another. The employer is protected from being interfered with or coerced by his employees by the existence of other employees whom he can hire. The employee is protected from being coerced by his employer by the existence of other employers for whom he can work; the customer by the existence of other sellers, and so on. [1]

To Friedman, the single mother who works a below-minimum wage day job and takes a second job cleaning offices at night because she cannot afford day care is making an informed free exchange.  Employees are protected because of all the other jobs available out there, unions, therefore, being an unnecessary drag on the freedom of employers.  To adherents of the market cult, this is more than wishful thinking; it is central to their belief. 

To Friedman, the basis of all freedom is economic freedom, the ability to do whatever you want with your resources.  The condition for having freedom, however, is that you have resources to begin with: “Only people have incomes and they derive them through the market from the resources they own, whether these be in the form of corporate stock, or of bonds, or of land, or of their personal capacity.”[2]  If you do not have resources, you are simply not a person.  Apparently, “personal capacity” is as fungible as stocks and bonds.  Friedman tells us that anyone is free to start a business. Presumably, starting a business is one way of cashing in on personal capacity as a resource.  So it takes resources to get resources.  Mitt Romney, in true market cult fashion, disposes of this problem rather handily, telling students to start a business, and, if they didn’t have the money for that, they should simply borrow it from their parents.  It’s not simply that market cult believers don’t understand that some are without resources; to them, such people are not actors in their system and are beneath consideration.

True, liberals and social-democrats take a different view of the market.  To them, the capitalist market is acceptable as long as we ameliorate its more destructive tendencies through distributionry schemes which correct injustice after the fact.  We might call their belief reformed market cult.  They complain that market cult orthodoxy does not lead to equality of opportunity and talk of leveling the playing field.  But even they do not doubt the core belief of the market cult, that there is playing field that is at least potentially fair and equitable.  They lack the understanding that the market, like fate, is simply an exercise of power and is designed to favor the powerful.

Friedman attempts to counter naysayers, claiming”

What most people really object to when they object to a free market is that it is so hard for them to shape it to their own will. The market gives people what the people want instead of what other people think they ought to want. At the bottom of many criticisms of the market economy is really lack of belief in freedom itself. [3]

This statement requires some major unpacking.  To Friedman, it is axiomatic that whatever is available in the market is necessarily what people want.  He lacks an understanding that desire can be manipulated and that what people want may not be entirely an object of free choice.  People tend to construct their identities in terms of what commodities marketers dangle in front of them, and so find what’s available on the market satisfying, unconsciously accommodating corporate power in their lives.  Gore Vidal was fond of pointing out that the most provocative thing about television that incites violence is not violent TV shows, but the advertisements telling those without resources what commodities they must have to be considered fully human. 

Friedman admits that people find the market difficult to shape to their will, but lacks curiosity about why they find it difficult and ignores the idea that some do not find it so difficult. The ability to shape the market to your will depends on your level of economic power: the more economic power you have, the easier it is to shape the market to your will.  Just as the Israelites understood that fate was purely a matter of pharaonic power, so we must understand the so-called market, which determines our conditions and our choices, is merely those with economic power using that power to get more economic power.  What believers call the free market, is, in reality, the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie.

The High Priest of the market cult tells us: “As it developed in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, the intellectual movement that went under the name of liberalism emphasized freedom as the ultimate goal and the individual as the ultimate entity in the society.”  Perhaps so, but only if freedom is the ability to have and use resources.  True freedom is not about that.  True freedom is the ability to determine necessity, which can only be accomplished by a collective, not an individual, entity.

 

 

[1] Friedman, Capitalism and Freedom. http://lf-oll.s3.amazonaws.com/titles/2492/Friedman_CapitalismFreedom1961.pdf

[2] Milton FriedmanFree to Choose: A Personal Statement

[3] Ibid.

Unimportantism

Unimportantism

I am not a religious believer, nor am I an atheist, nor even an agnostic.  How so?  Let me explain.

I was once watching an interview of Artur Rubinstein, one of the greatest pianists of the 20th century.  His lifespan encompassed much of the 20th century, and, in the musical world, he had known everybody and done everything.  He was most renowned as an interpreter of the Romantic repertoire.  The interviewer, unfortunately, was simply a journalist on assignment and knew nothing about classical music.  So what do you ask a man in his mid-nineties if you know nothing about his accomplishments?  The journalist asked Artur Rubinstein if he believed in an afterlife, and Rubinstein, consummate gentleman that he was, gave an intelligent answer to a stupid question.  He laughed and said that no—he didn’t believe in an afterlife, but if, when he died, he discovered that he was wrong, he’d be just delighted.

Rubinstein was, of course, telling the journalist that his question was unimportant.  How one lives is a more important matter than what happens after one dies.  But it struck me that Rubinstein had made “unimportant” into an important category.  So here’s the important question about religious belief.  If, when you wake up tomorrow morning, the headlines in the newspaper were to report the definitive answer to whether God exists, and imagine, if you will, that the answer were the contrary of what you now believe.  If that answer were absolutely known one way or the other, how would that answer change how you live your life?  If it would change your life, then the existence of God is an important question.  If it would not change how you live your life, then it’s an unimportant question.  Therefore, I would identify myself as an unimportantist non-believer.  Having said that, however, I feel I have more in common with an unimportantist believer than I do with an importantist non-believer.

What Bill Maher and the Pope have in common is that they are both importantists.  For this reason, I have difficulty identifying myself as an atheist.  Modern day atheists make two significant errors.  For one thing, they have turned science into a belief system, claiming only to believe what science has affirmed.  But science is not a belief system.  If anything, it is a skepticism system that challenges belief.  Making science into a belief system is a denial of Popper’s principle of falsifiability in which only a premise that can be falsified can be considered scientific.

Atheists also err by considering all religion to be infantile belief.  They fail to make a distinction between infantile and adult religion.  Infantile Christianity, for instance, is the belief in talking snakes, the belief that God made the world in six days some six thousand or so years ago, and its primary focus is on personal salvation.  Adult Christianity is the desire to be worthy of the grace of God as demonstrated by the sacrifice of Jesus.  Infantile Judaism is characterized by a slavish adherence to a strictly literal interpretation of the law.  Adult Judaism is the love of righteousness for its own sake, a dedication to tikkum olam, the healing of the world.  By denying the possibility of adult religion and seeing all belief as infantile, the importantist non-believers seem impelled by a strong desire to identify themselves as not that. 

Adult religion rejects the literalism of scripture and the relevance of scripturally defined sex roles.  For this reason, we would argue that adult Islam is currently being struggled for but has not fully arrived.  While an Islam that rejects Quranic literalism and the subjugation of women exists in some quarters, it is not available to the vast majority of Muslims as adult Christianity and Judaism are readily available to those believers, and certainly not in those Muslim majority countries where blasphemy, heresy, and apostasy are still part of the legal code.

Importantism, then, features a focus on the self as the most important entity, personal salvation for the believers, personal definition for the non-believers, while unimportantism focuses on the world beyond the self.

Importantism shows up in other contexts having to do with belief, particularly regarding political belief.  Its stamp is the exaltation of the self as the center of belief.  We see this on both the left and the right.  On the right, we can see it in the libertarian acolytes of Ayn Rand, who use her ponderous writings to extend their adolescent narcissism indefinitely into adulthood.  The myth of the free market provides the backdrop for their large-scale projection of the self onto the world and their indifference to any concern beyond personal reach. 

On the left, we see it in political attitudes whose end-point is personal purity.  Much vegetarianism is carried on this vein.  They absolve themselves of complicity in evil by refusing to participate in what they consider a system of cruelty.  They ignore, of course the massive ecological damage and cruelty perpetrated by the production of their preferred annual grains.[1]  A more mature understanding would see the evil of the entire system of for-profit food production, including factory farming and the monocrop production of grains, in light of which personal purity is unattainable and unimportant.  Contrary to vegetarian belief, there is no eating without death.  The question is not whether we participate, but how.

We can also see infantile importantism in the sentimentalizing of victimhood so prevalent on the left.  While victimhood is a reasonable spur to political action, sentimentalizing victimhood has little to do with actual compassion for victims and much to do with the self-righteousness and moral purity of those who profess to champion victims.  The sentimentalizing of victimhood eschews the complexity of that condition.  It breaks the world up into a false binary of victim categories vs victimizer categories and assigns moral superiority to the condition of victimhood and moral purity to those who champion victim categories.  By championing victim categories, they absolve themselves of complicity in the system of victimization they attribute to the natural workings of the state, which is why political action, for the infantile importantists, consists primarily of confrontations with state power.

Here’s an example of how infantile importantism has compromised the effectiveness of the left.  In a recent New Yorker article about political attitudes at Oberlin College,[2] the writer reports what happened to a student who objected to vague language in a sexual harassment statute because he felt that such vague language could lead to targeting ethnic groups.  He was accosted afterwards by another student: “A student came up to me several days later and started screaming at me, saying I’m not allowed to have this opinion, because I’m a white cisgender male.”  To the screamer, being a “white cisgender male” puts someone on the wrong side of the victim/victimizer binary and identifies him as a member of a victimizer category.  As such, he is denied a valid political voice; only those who can be identified as victims are allowed that in the infantile importantist imagination.  In this particular case, the screamed-at student’s Jewishness was being particularly denied as candidacy for victimhood because Jews are seen as victimizers of Palestinians, in what can only be seen as an unfortunate revival of the “socialism of the fools,” among the infantile left.  A more adult left would welcome all in an organizing effort to redress the consequences of victimhood while recognizing its complexity.  It would abjure such posturing as unimportant and the effort to exclude as deleterious.

That attitude of the screamer, that only those in a victim category can have a legitimate political voice, has led the left to abandon whole segments of the working class that do not fit the sentimentalized version of victimhood.  In effect, the left has signed on to the corporate project of dividing the working class into competing constituencies to their benefit.  The idea of a white working class, so often referred to by the punditocracy, is a fiction created by that attitude.  There is only a unified working class, and any attempt to destroy that unity is essentially reactionary. 

As many political theorists have pointed out, when the right makes political gains, it is because the left has somehow abandoned its constituency.  The sentimentalizing of victimhood, an infantile importantist attitude, is the primary vehicle by which the current left has accomplished that abandonment. 

 

[1] [1] For a fuller explication of this argument, read The Vegetarian Myth, by Lierre Keith

 

[2] http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2016/05/30/the-new-activism-of-liberal-arts-colleges