A stupid person is a real thing.
— Haitian proverb
I write this not as a righteous man, but as a sinner. You can apply that confession throughout. I’m also a presumptuous and un-pretty man, a philosophical and theological novitiate — a dilettante were I less serious about what I don’t know as well as I ought. I punch above my weight and often lead with my face. And I’m a Didymus — one day ready to march into a burning fire, the next riddled with doubt almost to the point of despair. I need correction, constant correction; but I’m never sure who I can trust for it. Nonetheless, here I go, clueless about when I’m clueless, and diving right in . . . “we’ll die with Lazarus!”
I’m going to talk about something I’ve never formally studied: philosophy. Fire away, those of you in the know, and God help me! This is also an unabashedly Catholic post, so that part will agitate some people, too.
I’m returning to this “woke/anti-woke” business, hopefully once and for all. The whole thing’s tiresome as all get-out. The problem, though, is that the woke-war is — like a stupid person — a real thing. Today, I’m re-examining this whole conflict in the light of Augusto Del Noce, who I only recently discovered, with an assist from Del Noce’s translator, Carlo Lancellotti, and the equally estimable critical reader of Del Noce — Michael Hanby, and a little bit of Simone Weil and Jacques Ellul.
Why the pic from my alma mater, Vietnam?
Because it was a costly war in which I was on the losing side and which accomplished nothing except strife, cruelty, and misery on both sides, with a heaping helping of horror for everyone in the middle. Paradoxically, the prevailing forces who repelled our occupation transformed themselves into a capitalist sweatshop. C’est la vie.
Vietnam is my personal analog for the Battle of Woke Hill. Nothing gets better until the war simply ends, but there are plenty of casualties left on the damage path.
Hamburger Hill, pictured above, was a fight for a strategically worthless bit of bombed out terrain that escalated into a ten-day firefight in which more than 600 Vietnamese were killed, along with 72 Americans (with 372 US wounded). It was judged by history to have accomplished nothing except the destruction of its own combatants.
I said, when I first heard this term — woke — used among inch-deep, infantile pseudo-leftists and liberal hipsters to refer to themselves, that the term was a nauseating display of class hatred and youthful hubris mixed into a self-administered roofie.
This was around the same time that the old left started carrying around portable oxygen tanks and the younger remainders withdrew into the Academy. “Resistance” was being transformed into “transgressions.” We started seeing empty, performative, virtue-signalling slogans like “abolish the family” and “decolonize your mind.” The “unwoke,” and not the ruling class, became the enemy, which meant mostly, and most, working class people — yes, the very class the left had long claimed to represent, albeit as its mysteriously enlightened political vanguard.
Woke’s biggest proponents were themselves largely people whose socioeconomic status insulated them against the actual lives of and problems affecting the working class. This pseudo-left diagnosed the heterogeneous working class as diseased, terminally infected by isms among which the term classism (not class) rose up and began walking among us like a reanimated corpse — Night of the Living Repurposed Closet Neoliberalism.
When you congratulate yourself, your o-so-hip friends, and your ideological allies as the “woke,” the outcasts from your in-group are necessarily the intellectually and morally inferior “un-woke”; not merely un-awake to the Gnostic emanations of the neo-Nietzschean Academy, but dangerous enemies to be converted, exiled, or put down.
The real epistemological subversion that happened here was something post-liberal Christians had long been describing about the church’s depublication. At the same time, the last survivors of old left clung to that soggy and sinking old metanarrative called socialism. Woketivism had depublicized that, too, then suffocated it with the fluffy pillow of the newly repurposed atomic-rainbow-unicorn-individual.
Echos of Rieff’s Triumph of the Therapeutic.
The unwoke weren’t merely wrong — a tough call, given the abandonment of such anachronisms as right and wrong — the unwoke were walking talking medical pathologies, carriers of the highly communicable and incurable psychological disorder, Covid-woketeen. Politics as contagion narrative.
It’s just incomprehensible, isn’t it, that people who are vilified as mentally and morally unfit and spoken down to by self-righteous scolds for decades, would respond by forming their own camp of the woke-panicked or the anti-woke? It is equally incomprehensible, isn’t it, that manipulators, opportunists, and demagogues from both sides of this new polarity would find ways of capitalizing on conflict?
Yep, the pieces were set. The Battle of Woke Hill was on.
Peterson, et al
I’ll get to the anti-woke momentarily — an equally execrable counter-development — but I admit I have a special animus for astroturf woketivism, because — as a kind of Catholic Polanyi-esque subsistance-socialist with subsidiarity-distributist tendencies — this culture-war psuedo-leftism gave the demagogues of the right, with all their incipient neo-fascism, an entirely predictable strategic leg up, by providing prefabricated guilt-by-association fallacies with which to revive the right’s flagging fortunes. The “left,” for the indoctrinated right now, is synonymous with the “woke.”
The joke here is that the “right” is referring to the right-liberal fraction (by the old definitions of right-left) of the technocratic class as “the left,” when these right-liberals (Clinton, Obama, e.g., who are economic Reaganites) are themselves some of the “left’s” most intractable and effective enemies.
“Woke” ideology — and by that I mean zombie-infection politics has been consistently and aggressively used by right-wing liberals against economically-left-wing political challengers. The mere accusation of being “sexist” or “racist” or “transphobic” or what-the-fuck-ever is sufficient to rally the culture-war troops against you, even in the absence of evidence.
That’s how contagion narratives work. It’s grade-school “cooties,” the love child of Mary Douglas and Joseph McCarthy. Does anyone remember, “Those who oppose Hillary Clinton are sexists.”? “If you criticize Barack Obama, you’re a racist.”? If you’re woman who opposes Clinton, you’re self-hating and colonized? If you’re black, and critical of Obama, you’re self-hating and colonized? The weaponization of “wokeness” is how the bourgeoisie can phagocytically envelope and incorporate anything that begins as real resistance or justice-seeking, in response to real offenses. There really are misogynists and race-haters out there, but their victims aren’t Hillary Clinton, Madonna, Oprah, or Obama. People with summer homes are not oppressed.
Conversely, we have the culture war counter-narrative, woke-panic. The woke-panicked call woketivism “cultural Marxism.” Think right-wing influencers like Jordan Peterson . . . who also calls it “postmodernism” — something most actually existing Marxists view with profound suspicion. Which brings me to comment on Jordan Peterson — something I’ve avoided until now because I find him shallow, inaccurate, and disagreeable in equal parts. Nonetheless, he’s important inasmuch as he’s hit some kind of culture-war tuning fork among a lot of disaffected very-online people—especially conservative young white men who are (with some justification) aggrieved by pop-poststructuralist name-calling and claims about genetically inescapable “white-male” pathology.
There’s an intelligent account of something we might call “cultural Marxism,” in a very limited sense (described below), and there’s such a thing as postmodernism. If he hadn’t died in 1998, we could ask Jean-François Lyotard, who I suspect Jordan Peterson’s never actually read, just as he’s never read anything by Marx except the Manifesto. Everything else he spouts is derivative of anti-Marxists he’s read and watched in YouTubeLand. Peterson, in his own special trifecta, mischaracterizes Marx, “cultural Marxism,” and postmodernism.
These terms have become epithets for the enemy, like Kraut or Nip or Gook or Hajji. “Cultural Marxism,” for Peterson and his ilk, is just a pseudo-philosophical synonym for identity politics, a synonym that carries with it some tactically convenient guilt-associations with the very real history of gulags, show trials, avoidable famines, and mass murder.
I’ve watched several interviews and debates featuring Peterson, and he consistently straw-mans his dead or abstract enemies, i.e., Marx or “postmodernism,” which he incomprehensibly conflates. He also misinterprets the Bible which he pretends to count as an authoritative text with which he pretends to enjoy some familiarity. He doesn’t actually appear to, and he claims to have established his own church (of which he is the sole member) which weds the Trinity to psychoanalytic theory. (<<<true story!)
Still, Peterson gets the best of his liberal/progressive enemies from time to time, because he’s discovered — unimpeded as he is by their in-group ideologies — how many easy points there are to score. When he was debating Kyle Kulinski, for example, and Kulinski — an annoying, obnoxious, and arrogant “progressive” podcaster — made reference to “the LGBTQIA-plus community,” Peterson came back with, “There’s no such community.” Peterson was absolutely right, of course. Plucking the low-hanging bullshit-fruit in progressive vocabularies, it turns out, is so easy a child could do it.
Or Jordan Peterson.
When Peterson debated Slavoj Žižek, on the other hand, Žižek, in spite of his beehive of ticks, lisps, and digressions, end-ran Peterson on their common disdain for “political correctness,” but with better arguments, then took Peterson to task for his misrepresentations of Marx and Peterson’s imaginary version of “cultural Marxism.”
There is a sort of cultural Marxism, or more accurately “anthropological” Marxism, which some contend has actually defeated revolutionary Marxism (we’ll explore this in some depth), and which established and consolidated the current version of the bourgeois order.
Peterson et al claim that “cultural Marxism” is a device to “divide society,” whereas the anthropological Marxism we’ll look at in a moment has effected the unification and subordination of society under a bourgeois technocratic order. Peterson’s “trinitarian” psychobabble is actually an instantiation of anthropological Marxism, as we shall see.
At any rate, the reason a lot of disaffected “conservative” young men (and I’m seeing more and more black, Asian, and Latino men, and a few women to boot) fall for Jordan Peterson — apart from his defensive masculinism — is the same reason I fell for Ayn Rand when I was twelve years old and huffing model airplane glue. Peterson knows how to sound intimidatingly smart when he’s talking to people who don’t know any better. He gives them a ready-made rhetorical playbook to prepare them against “progressives” and “liberals,” who are easier to refute every day, and this in turn reinforces his acolytes’ belief that he’s the smartest guy in the whole wide world. Peterson isn’t even interested in being right or wrong, but in continuing his self-regarding guru performance. David Bentley Hart, who is actually a very smart person, describes Peterson’s shtick as “a lot of really bad scholarship tied to a self-help philosophy.”
Peterson has also had some tangential contact with people who are engaged in a public conversation the shorthand of which is “postliberalism.” Last year I wrote a defense of maintaining conversations with the most troublesome of postliberals— the Catholic integralists — because they are, in spite of their fundamentally twentieth-century “reactionary” conclusions (which purport to be pre-modern), onto a few important things, even if their obsessive focus seems to remain on sexual mores and the reassertion of a particular form of (often quite misogynistic) male supremacy. They aren’t arguing merely for gender complementarity, which occurs naturally and idiosyncratically in all vernacular cultures, as well as being the biological fact which accounts for your birth and mine, but for a particular form of complementarity out of an imaginary, culturally restricted, and idealized past.
I am a Catholic, so this is kind of an inside-baseball thing, but it corresponds to post-liberalism more generally. One reason the integralists are receiving audiences is the fact that they consistently demonstrate greater philosophical depth than their “progressive” nemeses, who seem curiously uninterested in philosophy at all.
Postliberals, including integralists, may be wrong about things — we all are — but they are asking quite important questions which seem to be invisible to the culture at large; and right now, the questions are where the action is.
If we fail to acknowledge the post-liberal “reactionaries” (and not all post-liberals are) when they’re clearly right about many things, then we have no credible defense against the incipient right-wing authoritarianism which might quicken within their narratives. “Progressives” — especially of the woketivist variety — have positioned themselves as the only bulwark against this incipient “neofascism,” and in their philosophical ignorance, “progressives” (from Marxists to social democrats to Democrats) have proven about as effective as the Maginot Line.
When you define yourself as a warrior, your identity becomes dependent upon the enemy, without whom you are now nothing at all.
The now barely dominant right-liberal fraction of the bourgeoisie (think Democratic Party establishment) tactically platforms “marginal identities”; which have become anything but marginal, then massages these identitarian “communities” to political advantage. This ‘woke” tactic is used against the Democratic establishment’s enemies to the right and the left.
Bernie is a sexist. Corbyn is an anti-Semite. You’ve seen it.
This senile strategy is backfiring now. The “right” has mobilized around an “anti-woke” crusade, on the one hand; and on the other hand, woke-weaponization is so transparently manipulative that crucial Democratic voting blocs — African American and Latino, e.g. — many of them “culturally conservative” themselves—are calving off from the Democratic Party like slabs from the Thwaites Glacier.
The Battle of Woke Hill, however, isn’t just about the cultural distortions of tech simulacra or online identitarian tribalism. It’s the excrescence of a deep political, cultural, and spiritual decay. Our creaky Leviathans, far from having ended the imaginary war of all against all, are generating the Hobbesian origin myth, and the speed of tech is accelerating its growth.
Everything is politics, now, and we’ll explain why, and why this is so unfortunate. For now, though, just consider what we call political debates. Shrill, interruptive food fights. In this discursive public sewer, the name of the game is tribal, brain-dead, boo-yah point-scoring. So-and-so owned so-and-so. So and so humiliated so-and-so. I know you are, but what am I. The Pee-Wee Herman School of Rhetoric. Like it or not, it’s all happening, as real as a stupid person. This is the way politics is right now, and there’s no escaping its actuality.
The right, calling out the the right-center which they now call “the left,” as beholden to identity politics, is actually onto something; but they’re casting stones in a glass house, because the worst of the right fractions are themselves doing identity politics. It’s just that their identities are in conflict with the identities of the enemy’s identities.
Social crises always entail epistemological crises, and epistemological crises are manifest in persons as identity crises. (If you’re living in your own skin, you don’t need a diagnosis or an identity; but living in your own skin takes quite an effort these days to first see outside our nihilo-metaphysical matrix, then run hard enough to achieve escape velocity.)
“Identities,” as they’re spoken of today, haven’t been “uncovered,” they’ve been almost frantically invented. The very notion of identity — in the popular contemporary sense — is a pure invention, a fashion phenomenon. That exurban nitwit with the big black pickup and its oversized wheels, gun logos, black-and-white “no quarter” flag, and Punisher-skull decal is no less “performing an identity” than the purple-haired trans-kid at the nearby college.
John Gulick recently wrote that progressives and reactionaries are “phenomenologically co-constituted.”
The “woke” and the “woke-panicked” are “phenomenologically co-constituted.”
It needs to be said that there are vast oceans of people who are neither. Again, the omnipresence of the combatants in The Battle of Woke Hill is a battle of very-online persons. There are still a few homo sapiens who don’t go there.
Ideology and Del Noce
The culture wars produce ideology like geese produce shit. You can’t walk through the park without stepping in it. The internet — to where public discourse has largely migrated — is a nearly perfect medium for the perpetual reproduction of ideological shit. What then do we mean by ideology?
Žižek talks about ideology all the time, as does Jordan Peterson. Kyle Kulinski doesn’t, but he hasn’t the philosophical depth of either (which, alongside Peterson, is a remarkable achievement), even though Kulinski is himself a well-paid professional ideologue.
I’ve been reading the late Augusto Del Noce recently, perhaps the most significant Italian Catholic philosopher of the twentieth century, thanks to his interpreter, Carlo Lancellotti, who I’ve also been reading. I cannot too forcefully recommend a copy of Lancellotti’s English interpretation of Del Noce’s The Crisis of Modernity.
Del Noce’s interpretation of ideology is the one I’m using here, which he developed under the influences of Hannah Arendt, Luigi Giussani, and Simone Weil.
When Jordan Peterson discusses ideology, he does so as a kind of pop-idealist. Marxist or postmodern “ideology,” synonymous in his mind, are dangerous ideas carrying the seeds of evil. There would be some truth in that if he actually knew what he was talking about; but he’s really proposing another contagion narrative.
When Žižek discusses ideology, he is using an essentially Marxist definition of it — a structure of ideas emanating from a ruling class that simultaneously conceals and perpetuates ruling class power as it becomes hegemonic in society. There’s some truth in that, too, but it’s not the whole truth.
Marxists subsequent to Marx altered this idea a bit, and posited the necessity for counter-ideologies. This appears at first glance to be contradictory. If ideology is a form of power-perpetuating concealment, why would we want to do the same thing? The answer is in Marx, the philosopher, distinct from his analyses of capitalism.
It’s okay to generate ideologies, if they’re the means to the right end. As Engels stated quite explicitly, even philosophy’s purpose is purely instrumental — to “change the world.”
In the modern world, philosophy’s contemplative character (which Marx and Engels rejected) has been “consigned to the dustbin of history.”
Instrumentalism is a decidedly post-Christian belief in the West, and one that’s shared by political Marxists and political anti-Marxists alike. Unfortunately, it’s also now shared by substantial numbers of Christians — an issue I’ll address later.
The distinction between contemplative, “participatory” philosophy and instrumental philosophy are crucial here.
With the erasure (or marginalization) of philosophy as contemplative, as participating in an order of Being, humanity loses its place. In the post-Christian West, there’s no longer any redemption in Christ; redemption has rotated from a vertical to a horizontal axis, to politics.
Think Bacon’s New Atlantis. Social self-creation and redemption as accomplished through a Pelagian effort. Marxists said redemption was to be found in the future through revolution; their antagonists saw the redeemed future in ever-increasing affluence. Their shared Pelagian horizontalism, which was left alone on the field when contemplative philosophy was lost along with the sacred, gave rise to the shared notion that the sole redemptive force in the world is politics. Quite a few Christians, including some respected theologians, now appear to think this as well.
Again, bracketed for emphasis, because this IS the ground of the Battle of Woke Hill; the shared belief that the sole redemptive force in the world is politics. This is both sides’ ideological postulate. This has become modernity’s idological postulate. We are the fish, and this is the water.
The “woke” believe that the sole redemptive force in the world is politics. The “anti-woke” believe this. Liberals believe this. Conservatives believe this. Progressives believe this. Every species of reactionary believes this. Your neighbors believe this. Bernie Sanders believes this. Franklin Roosevelt believed this. Hitler believed this. Stalin believed this. Pol Pot believed this. Hillary Clinton believes this. Jair Bolsonaro believes this. Integralists believe this. The editors of Jacobin believe this. Jordan Peterson believes this. Slavoj Žižek believes this. It’s an article of modern faith that stretches trans-ideologically across the twentieth century and into the twenty-first, and the basis of the holy-war vibe that animates the current Battle of Woke Hill.
Taken to its logical conclusion, in a disenchanted world, ethics now has to be enclosed by politics. As Clausewitz really wanted to say, “Politics is war by other means.”
My own heretical assessment — one I came to with great pain — is that politics has neither the potential nor the capacity to redeem. At its best, it contains some potential for damage control; at its worst, total annihilation. Some might say this is doomerism — whatever — but that can only be so if one accepts the ideological premise that redemption is a political monopoly. Even the associative fallacy that technology (which has been the political redemption fallacy’s servant and enabler) has a redemptive monopoly is ultimately a political claim.
(Likewise, the counter-fallacy (mea culpa) is that “technology” or “politics” or techno-politics is some unitary all-encompassing evil, which — once done away with — will usher in the Age of Aquarius. We’re all addicted to the myth of “the future.”)
Arendt, Giussani, Weil, Del Noce, and Lancellotti can give us a hand here. Ideology (and the kinds of “totalitarianism” that result from it) can be identified by three criteria: abstraction, partiality, and co-constituent antagonism.
Abstraction is enclosing all analysis within within one’s ideological parameters and ignoring, or making elaborate excuses for, anything in experience that queers your ideological pitch. It’s a kind of “pure logic,” laboratory-insulated, inaccessible to any contaminating outside reality. I’m going to use Lancellotti’s quote from Arendt here to explain.
An ideology is quite literally what its name indicates: it is the logic of an idea … As soon as logic as a movement of thought — and not as a necessary control of thinking — is applied to an idea, the idea is transformed into a premise [and] a whole line of thought can be initiated, and forced upon the mind, by drawing conclusions in the manner of mere argumentation. This argumentative process could be interrupted neither by a new idea (which would have been another premise with a different set of consequences) nor by a new experience. Ideologies always assume that one idea is sufficient to explain everything in the development from the premise, and that no experience can teach anything because everything is comprehended in this consistent process of logical deduction. The danger in exchanging the necessary insecurity of philosophical thought for the explanation of an ideology and its Weltanschaaung is not even so much the risk of falling for some usually vulgar, always uncritical assumption, as of exchanging the freedom inherent in man’s capacity to think for the straight jacket of logic with which man can force himself almost as violently as he is forced by some outside power. [boldface mine, SG]
Lancellotti: “When the purpose of thought becomes the domination-humanization of reality (power and not truth), its greatest source of power is logical consistency and self-sufficiency, not verification by experience.” (Italics in the original)
Partiality is what we’ve seen with various identity politics. It’s where you take some part of what a person or group is, then redefine the person or group based solely on that partial characteristic. It’s Kyle Kulinski laying claim to a “community” of sexual minorities, the “members” of which may share not a damn thing in common apart from one negative attribute — being “non-heteronormative.”
In 2020, University of Pennsylvania Professor Emeritus Adolph Reed, an African American scholar and lifelong socialist, was “de-platformed” (“cancelled”) by the Democratic Socialists of America under pressure from an influential internal mob called the “Afrosocialists and Socialists of Color Caucus.” DSA’s membership is, by the way, largely drawn from those with college degrees and professional jobs, which includes these caucuses even though DSA’s membership is still “white” over-representative.
Dr. Reed, a very affable man I met in the nineties during organizing efforts for the failed Labor Party, a man who cut his political teeth during the Civil Rights Movement of the sixties and seventies, has been scathingly critical of the kind of “woke” race-politics that’s emerged since the nineties. His criticism is from a class-politics perspective, another partiality, though one far much more comprehensive than race. (Class conflict was identified well before Marx, by Aristotle.)
Reed criticized the narrative that Covid-19’s higher morbidity/mortality rates among African Americans was solely a function of “race.” Reed had actually done the numbers, and what he found was that when “racial groups” were analyzed separately by class, rich black people were as well-insulated from Covid-19 as rich white people. Very poor black people were affected in approximately the same way as very poor white people.
Now, it was and is true that poverty is more prevalent among black people overall in the US compared to white people overall, but even that is skewed by other variables like white concentrations of super-wealth. The fact is that the racial legacy of the United States has contributed, and substantially so, to higher levels of poverty among black people than white people (categories that themselves get a little shaky, given how much more common “multi-racial” families are now in the US). All Reed was saying is that the racial lens on these problems, which treated one characteristic as overdeterminative, was not only misleading, it was dishonest. From a practical political standpoint, Reed was asking if the race-only narrative is politically unitive or divisive, expressive or instrumental.
His de-platforming was not based on logical, empirical, analytic, or even philosophical counter-arguments, but on the basis of ideology — this ideology characterized by the elevation of some true but partial characteristic into one that overdetermines all others. He was de-platformed because he was “a class reductionist” — the name for a disease, it seems.
I can show, using the same incident, how ideology is inherently antagonistic (and here, I can likewise criticize Dr. Reed for his exclusive class-struggle focus, though modern class does contain a real structural antagonism). Ideology is impermeable to logic or reason, because it’s based on an idea that’s been converted into a premise.
Ideology is aimed instrumentally at “changing the world.” It’s central active principle is conflict. Marxism is conflict theory. Marxist ideology pits bourgeoisie against proletariat. Nazi ideology pits Aryan against Jew. Woke/anti-woke ideology pits . . . well, “woke” against the woke-panicked. The modern ideology of scientism pits “Science” against transcendence, or “religion” (more to come on this).
And here we find ourselves back at the redemptive monopoly of politics, because there are precious few remaining communal, shared-values mediators or support structures, apart from the vestigial nuclear family, between the person and the state. Which brings us back to political instrumentalism.
When politics is all you feel you have, it’s no longer what’s true that matters, but how it will affect political tactics. One may sacrifice parts of the truth to prevent them being used as talking points by the enemy. I’ve written some about this sublation of truth by politics with regard to abortion debates.
Kulinski’s imaginary and purely ideological “LGBTQIA+ community,” e.g., can only be defined over and against the enemy: the “compulsory hetronormative binary” (or whatever the latest fashion is in phrase-mongering). Peterson can easily show that this “community” is patently fictitious. And yet neither Kulinski nor Peterson are questioning the underlying and shared premise that their rivalry is “phenomenologically co-constituted” by a shared and unacknowledged belief in the redemptive monopoly of politics.
Just add the rival combatants’ narcissisms and mix well.
Neither side in the Battle of Woke Hill can defend its ideology on logical or philosophical grounds without excluding parts of reality (which the other side can then [o dreadful day!] use) that both sides (these somewhat civil debates — Peterson, Kulinski, and Žižek get some props here for talking like adults — being slightly exceptional) ultimately resort to the contagion narrative version of political discourse, what I might call the World War Z model. Kill the infected!
Welcome to the twitterverse, or whatever’s replaced it for the very-online in the last twenty minutes. I can’t keep up.
War on Transcendence
Shun the ‘transcendent.’
— Christopher Hitchens
Our crisis is at bottom metaphysical and spiritual.
The reason such diverse actors and enemies share the fallacy of political redemption is that this fallacy is baked into the prevailing metaphysical cul-de-sac that we can shorthand as scientism. Del Noce called it — with reference to how it has distorted (liberalized and conservatized) the church — “sociologism.”
Del Noce closely followed, and even participated in, the post-WWII flirtation between Marxism and Catholicism. He’d initially believed in the post-war anti-fascist Catholic-Marxist rapprochement, but was disabused of his naivete by the almost casual acceptance of “the necessity of violence” professed by both right and left.
In reflecting on that experience, and after a deep dive into Marxism, Del Noce finally concluded not only that Marxism and Catholicism are entirely incompatible, but that Marxism had actually prevailed in late modern society, but only in one respect — its atheistic metaphysical foundation (Manuscripts of 1844), which inevitably entails the fallacy of redemption as a political monopoly.
Marxian (scientistic) metaphysics, says Del Noce, are inherently mendacious, because scientism’s inescapable metaphysical presumptions must be hidden behind the (metaphysical) assertion that metaphysics no longer matters.
It was Marxism’s “religious”/transcendent aspect — revolution — which was eventually defeated by Marxism’s technocratic, scientistic, and necessarily atheistic, progress narrative, which prevailed in the post-war world, but as a hegemonic bourgeois ideology. Marx’s scientistic atheism was turned against its religious/romantic/revolutionary aspect in the metaphysical war on transcendence (which Del Noce also called a war on Platonism). Revolutionary Marxism was destroyed by “cultural” or “anthropological” Marxism. (I’ll rejoice when I hear Jordan Peterson say that.)
In another sense, of course, given that Marx inherited his views on “religion” from Feuerbach, we might say we are living with cultural Feuerbacheanism. And in yet another sense, Marxism took from Rousseau the idea of humans as socially-determined and therefore amenable to progressive perfection through social [read, political] action — sociological Pelagianism. And of course, Hegel’s neo-Gnostic notion of teleological history, wherein God is no longer transcendent, but purely immanent — God is both at once. (I’ll continue to describe Del Noce’s “continentalist” positions, though I think he’s given more credit to Marx than was Marx’s due here, and his Eurocentric standpoint doesn’t fulsomely reflect how these things came about on the US side of the Atlantic . . . or even in the Bacon/Hobbes/Smith/Locke UK for that matter.)
Del Noce’s “sociologism,” or anthropological Marxism (historical materialism, with its moral correspondent in radical relativism) was more deeply internalized in the post-war US than in Europe, because Europe had, until the war, more deeply embraced the Kantian transmogrification (or horizontalization) of Christian ethics into the categorical imperative, based on the now quaintly archaic notion that it’s wrong to treat others as objects, as means to your own ends.
Europe had its frictive and deeply sedimented traditions. America, on the other hand, was built on a quite recent history of expansionary conquest and war, its militarism generating what Paul Virilio would have called a “logistical mindset.” And, of course, America’s philosophical flashlights were pragmatism and positivism. The idols of progress, science, and technology, in other words, encountered far less friction in the post-war US than they did in Europe.
The land wars in Europe and Asia had left behind terrifying levels of devastation. The US had the fresh post-war industrial capacity and post-war access to a vastly expanded colonial periphery, with the motor of Cold War competition, to set the US up as the post-war global economic engine and world hegemon. At the same time, sociology captured the imagination of the post-war American academy and became much more influential. This academic development corresponded with the application — academic, economic, and cultural — of a Disneyfied “scientistic progressivism.” I’ve written a good deal in the past about growing up in the fifties and sixties, when we were hammered incessantly with Disney propaganda in support of the public religion of technological prosperity, or Progress.
The history of philosophical/anthropological postulates in the West, by Del Noce’s lights, can be traced from Plato to Hegel, then from Hegel forward, as two distinct accounts of rational thought. The Greek-Christian synthesis said that the exercise of reason is participatory. We participate in reality when we reason correctly, because creation is mapped onto, directed, and enlivened by Ideals (Plato) or the Divine Logos (Augustine/Aquinas). There are transhistorical eternals, orders, natural laws; and reason is a disciplined relationship with this order of Being. The search for the truth presupposes being ordered to the truth, like a dance partner.
As a Catholic, I would say that reason is called from our nature — as imago Dei, as bearers of a divine spark — by our supernature, by our “beatific vision.” Reason, properly understood, is answering that call. Nature and supernature interpenetrate one another, and our rational nature is drawn to ultimate transcendence — even when it faces denial and interference — not for mere knowledge, but for communion. Instrumental rationalist ideology has to attack, exclude, and suppress our rational will which is naturally drawn toward communion. It has to shout, distract, violate, shield our view of the transcendent with its body, until all that’s left is counting, un-masking, and remaking — the indefinite, interminable, bottomless pit of scientism. It doesn’t want us to know the world is full of signs and spirits, that angels are as real as trees and clouds, that the whole of creation is alight with spirit, that everything comes from and seeks its return to the mind of God. This is why the first campaign of war on transcendence has to be aimed at the devaluation and eventual destruction of contemplation.
Gnosticism and the Bourgeoisification of Marx
A type of thinking that claims absolute cognitive mastery of reality. Relying as it does on a claim to gnosis, gnosticism considers its knowledge not subject to criticism. Gnosticism may take transcendentalizing (as in the case of the Gnostic movement of late antiquity) or immanentizing forms (as in the case of Marxism).
— Eugene Webb
Descartes and Bacon and Duns Scotus put their pieces on the board; but it was Hegel who moved them into position philosophically, by translating the immanentization (horizontalization) of God into a systematic historicist neo-Gnosticism (Del Noce relied heavily for this analysis on Eric Voegelin. Del Noce’s chapter, “Violence and Modern Gnosticism,” in The Crisis of Modernity, explores this in great depth.)
Gnosticism here relies on the structure described in Plotinus’s criticism of the Gnostics, which says:
“. . . nothing good can be found in this world. So, their doctrine annuls temperance and justice, innate to the human character and perfected by reason and practice, and in general all that can make man worthy and noble . . . Because for them nothing is noble among earthly things, except for something ‘different’ that they will reach ‘in the future life.’” (Del Noce)
To hell with the future. It’s a man-eating idol.
— Ivan Illich
Neo-Gnosticism, as articulated by Hegel and his philosophical offspring, right and left, horizontalized Gnosticism by replacing the higher (vertical) plane achieved through special knowledge (gnosis) with the (horizontal) “new future,” one which requires not leaving behind the mortal plane, but leaving behind the past. Heaven-above (spatial/vertical) was replaced by heaven-as-future (temporal/horizontal).
Del Noce, forged in the violence of the twentieth century, made it his mission to understand that violence. It had departed from the violence of Christendom — which was plentiful and horrible to be sure — in that the pre-modern ethicist’s view (apart from plentiful ethical failures) was that violence is only justifiable as a proportional last resort. This “necessary evil” view was replaced (consider the twentieth century to the present) by the “ennoblement of violence” as the only path to the new future. In Ethiopia, in the gulags, and in the death camps, the dead were not remembered as enemies who still — as human beings — bore the imago Dei; but as non-entities, no longer relevant, disappeared along with the past — fertilizer for the imaginary future.
The new human was making him- or herself out of spilled blood.
If you want to make the omelet, you have to break some eggs.
Del Noce called this ethical evolution the overthrow of imago Dei by homo sapiens, and the overthrow of homo sapiens by homo faber. Philosophy was no longer participating, through reason (and contemplation — a sabbatical practice), in the order of Being; it had become purely instrumental in re-making it.
The philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways. The point, however, is to change it.
— Karl Marx & Friedrich Engels, Theses on Feuerbach
Driven by the competition with the USSR, the US had its own revolution from Kant to what Del Noce would call the anti-transcendental Marx, in which technocratic managerialism was wedded to “progressive consumerism,” or “the affluent society.” Del Noce, again, did not fully understand the US (or, for Jordan Peterson, Canada). Bacon’s New Atlantis was more formative than Marx after the war; but the outcomes are still recognizable by Del Noce, because the future-worshiping instrumental materialism was the same.
An adequate account of pragmatism would suggest that Marx is not quite the prime number Del Noce takes him to be, but was an acute manifestation of a deeper metaphysical revolution that was already underway. That revolution could be called secularization — not in the standard meaning of the word (the slow, supposedly inevitable desacralization of thought and life), but rather in the terms as used by John Milbank and Andrew Willard Jones, for whom “the secular” is a heretical transformation within the Christian tradition, dependent upon a wholesale reimagination of God, being, nature, truth, and Christianity itself. (Michael Hanby) [Something similar is also said by both Charles Taylor and Ivan Illich].
For Del Noce, the philosophical materialist Marx and the “religious” or teleological Marx, as summarized above, were always at odds. There’s no doubt that the history of the West (and eventually the world) pivoted on Marxism, when in 1917 — contrary to Marx’s own teleological speculations that socialism would emerge in the “developed” nations — Marxists came to power in ‘backward” Russia. The rest of the twentieth century was determined by this event.
The response of the West — especially after the defeat of Hitler — was to adopt key Marxist tenets, i.e., unfettered materialism and the redefinition of humanity as simultaneously homo faber and homo economicus — against homo sapiens and imago Dei — a transformation which inhered with radical moral relativism. This was the background and basis for the war against transcendence.
(People were baffled by atheist-apostle and “anti-imperialist” Christopher Hitchens’ support for the disastrous invasions and occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq, when it was perfectly consistent with his neo-Gnostic scientistim. Those backward-assed religious barbarians had to be bombed into modernity with some “ennobling” omelette-violence.)
The war on transcendence was a Pyrrhic victory for Marxism.
In what Del Noce called “the decomposition of Marxism,” Marx’s transcendent “revolution” went down alongside the vestigial remnants of Christian traditions, and alongside Kant’s quasi-Christian categorical imperative. The whole past, and the whole world it made, were the real enemies to be deconstructed and overcome, to be cancelled.
When Del Noche was discussing Marxism — with which he was intimately familiar — he wasn’t discussing the analytics of capitalism (Marx’s greatest accomplishment), but the relationship between philosophy and history. Del Noche split the difference between Hegel and Marx with regard to the debate about idealism/materialism, in a sense, but he maintained that with the industrial and technological, and especially media, advancements of the nineteenth and twentieth century, ideology came to play an increasingly determinitive role in political, and therefore material conditions. This is no longer deniable in the era of social media, where the technologies of ideology continually lap the arthritic political process.
Two leitmotifs shared by all the secular actors (East and West) were the Baconian/Rousseauian notion of building heaven on earth and the Cartesian notion of the objectification of nature. In Marx, the faith in revolution, as the teleological catalyst for the New World, was Baconian/Rousseauian, whereas his scientistic materialism was essentially Cartesian. The Cartesian Marx was separated from the Baconian/Rousseauian post-Christian Marx by the events of the twentieth century, which ended with the teleological/transcendent/revolutionary Marx’s defeat in Europe and (Del Noce claims) the triumph of the scientistic Marx in America, where this philosophical plagiarism simply hid Marx inside positivism and pragmatism at home while it vilified the ultimately defeated messianic/revolutionary Marx abroad.
Del Noche was born in Italy in 1911, so he saw all this unfold — including Mussolini and World War II. (He died in 1989, just as the Berlin Wall fell.) Del Noche was, as noted, also deeply involved in European Catholic debates after the war. His conclusion, which is shared by Brad Gregory (whose The Unintended Revolution I am now reading for the fourth time), is that the ostensibly anti-metaphysical foundation of morally relativistic materialism is a sly metaphysical exclusion of anything that cannot be universally shared as a product of scientific investigation (scientism).
Because this exclusion is not explicit, scientistic materialism in practice generates its own corresponding, and hegemonic, ideology — the idea of scientism becomes a cultural premise (Arendt)— which appears to plain persons as common sense, especially among the urban and affluent. That is to say, the answers need no longer be enforced for questions no one any longer thinks to ask. “What is the meaning of this?” is not a forbidden question, but an unthinkable one in a world where we’ve agreed there is no indwelling and eternal meaning.
Not the crude anti-religion of Dawkins and Hitchens, but “irreligion.”
What Maritain and the later neo-modernists failed to see is that the singular character of Marx’s atheism followed from his concession that Hegel’s speculative idealism had completed the philosophical tradition begun with Plato. Marx’s dictum “philosophy becomes world” is premised upon his acceptance of the world’s having “become philosophy” in Hegel. To invert Hegel is to say that philosophy resolves itself not in understanding, but in action — in praxis. But in this case, God, being, nature, truth — all forms of transcendence — simply cease to matter. It is not that their non-existence has been demonstrated by argument; indeed, atheism rests on a negative act of faith, which Del Noce will later exploit for his alternative philosophical history. It is that reason itself has been so transformed by the conflation of thought and praxis that transcendence has become, strictly speaking, unthinkable. God is not a question that can be posed seriously from within this conception of “reason.” What matters now is history: the past historical and material conditions that make all truth claims into an expression of ideology, and the future historical conditions that will be changed by human praxis, that is, by science and political action, whose “truth” is verified by its effectiveness. (Hanby, Ibid.)
The Postwar US Boom
The exaltation of possibility over actuality in the name of freedom and pragmatic “truth,” or rather, the reconception of freedom and truth as forms of power, has inaugurated a state of permanent revolution against every form of antecedent order — natural, moral, political — with the technical and political dimensions of this revolution mutually reinforcing and capacitating each other. (Michael Hanby)
Irreligion was far less “reliant” on Marx in America than Europe (which Del Noce overlooks or misunderstands). Thomas Jefferson, one of the authors of our bourgeois revolution, re-wrote the New Testament to suit his own philosophy well before Marx made his mark. Nonetheless, whether decomposed Marxism or Calvinist Baconianism mixed with settler colonialism and John Dewey, Europe and the US, with a few inflectionary differences, arrived at the same scientism.
The 1950s and 1960s, especially in the US, were a period of ferociously efficacious instrumentalism fueled by working class and “middle class” consumption financed by military Keyensianism. We bought everything — automobiles, tract houses, electrically-powered tools, appliances, and entertainment. Match that, you Soviet bastards!
These decades also saw the rise in the US of our most peculiar Christian heresy, “patriotic prosperity theology,” which grew within the larger “conservative” evangelical-patriot movement, which is only now, after six decades, beginning to show cracks in its superstructure.
Lisa McGirr’s excellent history of the development of right-wing political evangelicalism — Suburban Warriors (2001) — summarizes this period in the Preface to the New Edition:
Given the Right’s influence in national life — there is ongoing interest, and arguably an urgent need, to understand conservatives’ road to power and the sources, tributaries, and social settings that have fueled this strand of American politics . . . [to chart] the Right’s emergence from the shadows of American politics in the late 1950s to the halls of American power by 1980 [Reagan]. [McGirr’s book] locates the origins of the New Right in a new regional political formation that coalesced in the 1060s Sunbelt suburban enclaves, nowhere more powerfully than in Orange County, California. In this new setting, ordinary [sic] men and women — engineers, physicians, dentists, and housewives — forged the nucleus of the grassroots conservative movement. Emergent Sunbelt communities such as Orange County provided a fertile seedbed for the Right drawing on a wellspring of regional southern and western libertarianism and conservative religiosity. Waving the flag of anti-communism, these suburban warriors came into view when John F. Kennedy entered office championing a newly assertive liberalism in 1960. With the backing of conservative businessmen and intellectuals who wielded resources and ideas, they transformed the Republican Party from the earlier big-tent political force of mid-century into the ideologically disciplined programmatic party Americans are familiar with today . In contrast to earlier interpretations that psychologized and dismissed right-wing adherents as paranoid, marginal, backward-looking cranks, I emphasize a different interpretation. These men and women — many of whom embraced emotive, revivalist religiosity — were affluent and well-educated. They were comfortably at home in the modern, privatized, consumer-oriented high-tech world of the post-World War II southland, indeed they helped create it.
There was (and is) another ideological decomposition entailed by progress — the separation into the warring tribes of “conservative” evangelical-patriots from “liberal” technocratic libertines. The woketvists and the woke-panicked had both quickened in the womb of this gadget-happy libertarian-consumerist movement.
My own family history tracks these developments very closely. Arkansans (like my family), who, with East Texans and Oklahomans, migrated to Southern California, where the burgeoning postwar military-industrial complex had created hundreds of thousands of new jobs. These migrants brought with them their charismatic Protestantism and their negrophobic race panic, which was melded with job-producing anti-communist militarism and Disney progress theology. (I was born just a few miles from Disneyland.) By the late 1960s, the issue of abortion, and the so-called sexual revolution, brought some conservative Catholics into this nascent right-wing alliance.
As we’ve noted, Americans are uninterested in philosophy and yet deeply ideological. The law of non-contradiction is off the American radar, which is why here — more than in Del Noce’s Europe — we can see a professed Catholic like Paul Ryan who promotes the books of Ayn Rand — an atheistic pop-Nietzschean pseudo-philosopher.
In Del Noce’s Europe, the human being with the divine spark was displaced by the human being who “makes the world” and “makes him- or herself,” then by the ever more atomized “consumer.” In America, this applied to “liberals” and “progressives.” It still met resistance from the right, who wanted to have their “traditional” cake and eat it too.
Philosophical scientism is a a liberal thing in America, but practical scientism (ahem) consumed the right as well. In every case, as Del Noce himself observed, before the religious right became a thing, when “religion” aligns with state power, state power absorbs religion, not the inverse. As postliberal American theologians have pointed out, once faith was consigned to the private sphere as a personal preference, our public religion became Americanism, belligerent, militaristic, and materialistic.
Even in “religion’s” purported absence, something will always be held sacred. That’s human nature talking.
The Decomposition of the American Right
Del Noce, in recounting both the Catholic-fascist alliance in Italy before WWII and the Catholic-Marxist anti-fascist alliance in Europe after the war, summarizes these alliances as “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.” This is never a stable form.
The post-sixties Republican Party in the US had a similar alliances; but its strength was twofold. It was well-funded, and it was almost militarily disciplined. They stayed on message, and they never substituted internal political expressivism for external political instrumentalism. Nonetheless, the stability of this alliance was never going to hold if the unifying enemy’s identity fell into question, and political identity is almost always defined against the enemy. After Nixon’s Southern Strategy, the unspoken but understood enemy was African America. There’s still a powerful contemporary vestige of Republican negrophobia, subequently augmented by the Islamofascists, and now freshly combined with the fear and loathing of the “illegal alien.”
The decomposition of the American right (still in an early stage) began with the Tea Party and progressed through Trumpism. Woke-panic is enemy-remodeling for the purpose of sealing the cracks in the New Right alliance and recruiting from an economically abandoned white working class and rural base who’ve grown weary of liberal assaults on their cultural sensibilities, their traditions, and their faith.
This strategy has been only partially successful. In 2022, there was a foundation-cracking tremor. Bear in mind, what follows is a tactical assessment, not a moral one.
Last year, the conservative Supreme Court in the Dodd decision struck down Roe v. Wade. In that same year, a midterm election — when the party out of power generally does very well, and even during a crippling bout of inflation — the Republican Party did far less well than expected. Dodd was surely one of the major causes of this under-performance. Abortion was the main issue keeping many evangelicals in the coalition, in spite of many evangelicals’ discomfort with libertarians and with Trump himself. The libertarians, who also constitute a critical share of the Republican base, had views on abortion which were far less monolithic. Economic (anti-tax, anti-regulation) Republicans — another share — were also split on abortion. Catholics — about evenly split between Republicans and Democrats — who voted Republican were largely voting against abortion, in spite of the fact that these same Catholics were never very enthusiastic about the Republican Party’s opposition to social assistance programs; and many of them found Trump to be utterly offensive in his person. Dodd took away the abortion issue at the federal level by settling it, on the one hand, and outraged a fraction of formerly Republican-voting (pro-abortion) women whose party loyalty was based on their belief that the RP would never succeed in overturning Roe, the one issue with which they disagreed with their party. Dodd, in purely political terms, was a Pyrrhic victory for the Republican party, one that exposed and widened the fracture lines within the party itself.
This was only the latest example, and one that doesn’t highlight another development — or rather, another faction — within the Party: right-wing populism. It has elements of libertarianism and constitutionalism. It’s also enlivened by a very machista bucaneer esprit, with its mythical/aesthetic roots in the Hollywood version of the American Revolution, combined with a robustly zany gun culture. White supremacist restorationism is still in the mix, but it’s not characteristic of all its adherents. This phenom is in many respects an adolescent male fantasist orientation, but it’s nonetheless substantial within the Party. It’s absolutely responsible for the January 6 Capitol Riot.
It all began as an astroturf operation called the Tea Party movement in 2009, after Ron Paul’s quixotic run for the Presidency and President Barack Obama taking office. It was heavily funded on the sly by the billionaire Koch family. But Pinocchio-like, enlivened by these wellsprings of money, the puppets became real boys.
Militia-nuttery started running wild among disaffected suburban and exurban fantasists, accompanied by very-online conspiracy theories. (My niece’s ex-husband has been stockpiling weapons, ammunition, body armor, gas masks, ninja gadgets, and God knows what else for over two decades now in his hidden “safe room” in the middle of a city of 100,000 people, where the greatest dangers are drunk drivers, summer heat strokes, and overdoses. He sports a big chrome iron cross on his big truck. He supports himself by trimming and removing trees and by selling dope.)
After eight years of Obama’s Wall Street friendly policies at home and death-from-the-sky militarism abroad, “hope and change” only brought greater inequality and more precarity. Donald Trump, whose one true talent is self-promotion with no ideological commitments, and assisted by “fourth turning” ideologue Steve Bannon, tapped into a vein of tear-it-all-down resentment, and made himself into the precariously disaffected “populist” fuck-you vote. Trump, a media-guy, understood something that neither the gerentocratic Republican establishment nor the gerentocratic Democratic establishment did: trolling.
Trump trolled his way to the Republican nomination and the presidency. When reason is abandoned . . .
Some he drew with his anti-elitism (perplexing, I know). Some he drew with his racial dog-whistling and immigration fear-mongering. Some he drew with his macho Mussolini shtick. A lot just enjoyed Trump “owning” his opposition — many of them the arrogant technocrats — by trolling them. But he also (rightly, in my view) opposed neoliberal trade agreements and foreign military entanglements.
Trump and his advisors had grasped and exploited the new reality which evaded the gerentocratic establishment: the newfound power of social media, which had vastly expanded the mediations of Charles Taylor’s “buffered self.”
Social media grant to their users something of the editorial power long enjoyed by traditional media in their mediation of what counts as reality: the power to construct a self-enclosed world, only now with the added capacity to curate a population of “followers.” The illusion that this stylized world is the real world depends both upon the never-ending feedback loop of affirmation from these followers and, even more fundamentally, upon the capacity to exclude from consideration ideas and questions that might undermine the edifice. The media’s mediation of reality, their power to determine what we think about, and the power of not thinking are one and the same. The structural features of a platform like Twitter — its brevity, the “presentism” of its mediated immediacy, and, of course, its omnipresence — enhance this power exponentially. Combine this with the stimulus-response character of these disincarnate exchanges and their performative character as instruments of self-expression and self-promotion, and a powerful inducement to thoughtlessness comes into being: an irresistible “structural temptation,” inherent to the very nature of the medium, to exchange knowing for knowingness and to absolve oneself and one’s followers of the burden of thinking. Social media discourse is therefore structurally sophistic even when it is telling the truth, employing words not for the sake of understanding but as instruments of other ends, ends for which understanding, half-truths, or falsehood may be equally useful as means. In the virtual world created by social media, even the truth itself becomes an ideology, an instrument in the service of power — which is the fate of truth whenever politics becomes the ultimate horizon. Social media and totalitarianism are thus made for each other. As Marshall McLuhan famously observed, the medium is the message. (Michael Hanby)
Trump’s trolling worked with his rural and small town supporters (though the gross majority of his support came from the burbs), channeling the fear and loathing of more traditional communities about the cultural enforcement of what would come to be called “woke,” which really was, and is, a product peddled by the (once young, but now not so much) urban bourgeoisie.
There was another bloc that was taken by woke-panic, somewhat justifiably: evangelical Christians. Did they know that Trump was himself a venal, pathological liar? Yes. Did they know that he was himself an old coke-headed, sexually-predatory party boy? Yes. Did they know that he was no more a Christian than Christopher Hitchens? Yes. Then why? Their mantra became, “God can draw a straight line with a crooked stick.”
The enemy of the evangelical right’s enemy was their friend; and Trump promised them one thing in particular, probably the only promise he ever fulfilled: he stacked the court to take down Roe. Were the evangelicals also captives of the ideology of redemptive politics? Hell, they practically invented it! In 2006, 23 percent of the US adult population were “white evangelicals.” Damn near every one of them voted as a bloc in every single election. In military terms, that’s heavy artillery.
But something was happening in the background during Trump’s administration. By 2021, national evangelical numbers had diminished from 23 percent to 14 percent. The outflow was comprised overwhelmingly of white evangelicals between 18 and 40 years old. Their churches put tremendous pressure to sustain the activism that started in sunny SoCal sixty years ago. The same churches compelled them to defend ever shakier evangelical positions in public. Trump, in particular, was making them a mockery. They either joined other confessions, having read Scripture and grasped the contradictions, or dropped into the now-majority youth category of “no religious preference.”
The heavy artillery was, and is now, running out of ammunition. The fastest growing “political affiliation” in the US is “independent.” The only reason the Republican Party is still in power in many state governments (and in the US House of Representatives) is gerrymandering. In addition to these misfortunes, the long steady march of demographics is whittling away their base, as death stalks the old — where most of their strength lies — and a steady inflow of youths — who lean further “left” — turn eighteen.
With their fortunes flagging, what remains?
Strategically speaking? Culture wars.
The Democratic Party is also decomposing, as the chart shows. Nonetheless, independent challengers in the political arena had been prevented from breaking through the big-money wall around the two-party system.
Bernie Sanders gave it a good shot as America’s last moralist, but he was taken down in the end by Wall Street and the Democratic establishment’s weaponization of identity-politics, using a co-opted and contained black political class. Democratic bosses employ a kind of side-eye-gerrymandering where they defeat challengers from the economic left in heavily patronized Southern states during primaries, states which they’ve already written off in general elections as Red.
Trump broke past the establishment wall in a paper-thin victory, resulting in four years of near-panicked Republican establishment efforts to contain him.
Predictably, a host of Bush neoconservative Republicans migrated to the Democratic Party, where they already has strong affinities with the neoconservative Obama, who’d simply extended the Bush administration in most respects. To oversee his aggressive foreign policy, Obama chose the neoconservative Hillary Clinton as his Secretary of State. As a Senator, she had sided with Bush fils down the line on nearly every issue.
The Republican establishment was stuck with Trump, who’d stolen away their base with his discursive heterodoxy and entertaining antics. Suddenly, no Republican could survive without kissing the lunatic’s ring and talking like his parrot. (In a funny recent revelation, related to the Dominion defamation lawsuit, emails were uncovered from the top three Fox News anchors, who had cheer-led for Trump and his hare-brained coterie publicly, while exchanging private opinions that Trump and his crew were all batshit crazy . . . it was a ratings thing.)
The Republican establishment white-knuckled their way to January 6th, whereupon, finally, Trump’s narcissistic insurrectionary overreach gave some of them the excuse they’d been seeking to file for divorce. But the damage was done. Trump had built a massive cult of personality around himself, which even today, after suffering the debility of a thousand cuts, maintains sufficient numbers to swing any and every Republican primary. The defeated Trump — reduced to scamming his remaining supporters and selling Trump trading cards — is still an albatross around the Republican Party’s neck . . . one that can still, zombie-like, be reanimated.
As this is written, Trump is staking out a position for the preservation of Social Security against Republicans who’ve wanted to pillage it for years. He’s also calling for negotiated settlement of the Ukraine war. Don’t write off the old grifter yet. Yes, he lies, and could reverse his positions in an instant once back in office. Democrats lie, too, and everyone knows it.
One big thing’s for sure. As Michael Hanby wrote, the historic fusion between socially conservative liberalism and libertarian economic liberalism is being publicly “falsified.” (Hanby, a Catholic intellectual, also includes “the Americanism of Catholic neo-conservatives” in this falsifiable “fusion.”)
This falsification, and the loss of confidence in the liberal epoch’s capacity to correct itself, fed into a new intellectual project.
The Postliberal Moment
Returning now to Del Noche, he described — in his own idiom — how historical materialism (and/or post-Baconian positivism and Dewey-ite pragmatism in the US) had facilitated a bourgeois philosophical revolution (from Kantian metaphysics-and-morality to “Marxist” metaphysics-and-morality), Historical materialism triumphed in a capitalist key. It was Kantianism prior to the war that had applied the philosophical brakes to capitalism. Postwar, with the brakes removed, we went from John Maynard Keynes to Ayn Rand to Davos, from Leave it to Beaver to Dirty Harry to Pornhub. (Kant was a deontologist. Lenin was a consequentialist. Ronald Reagan and Barack Obama were also consequentialists.)
Without some transhistorical [read transcendent] account of justice, Marx’s inherently moral criticisms of capitalism — however well-analyzed — foundered. That’s why capitalism so easily absorbed historical materialism during the Cold War. Thus absorbed, historical materialism, in practice, if not in name, gave rise to an every more powerful bourgeois hegemony, having transformed the “revolutionary” working class into passively enthusiastic consumers.
When that foundered, we saw the rise of “populism” right and left, as people’s trust in institutions, from media to Wall Street to Congress, collapsed. Then came the pandemic, perhaps the most revelatory moment since 2008. This, too, was mapped onto pre-existing political rivalries.
It is as if authentic community is possible only in conditions of permanent threat, in a continuous state of emergency.
— Slavoj Žižek
When Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben wrote a blog essay that was critical of the technocratic “biopolitical” response to the Covid-19 pandemic, he was denounced by censorious American liberals who, rather than grasp what he was saying (most never did), reflexively slotted him among the “fascist know-nothing anti-science plods.” Agamben was writing about the relation between metaphysics and politics, but because the liberal establishment is uninterested in metaphysics (it’s one of those foreclosed questions in liberal public discourse), all the liberal mavens could see was “politics” and “science.”
His accusers never, to my knowledge, mentioned Agamben’s remarks just a year before about Ivan Illich — the philosopher/historian my own readers will have seen referenced many times. These remarks clarified Agamben’s intent.
Illich, like Del Noce, has demonstrated an uncanny prescience about the world we’ve come to live in today well before it was manifest. Agamben said about Illich’s ever more apparent prescience that Illich had come into “his hour of legibility.” Agamben and Illich were pointing to the disenchanted, disembedded de-personalization of human beings under technocratic rule — human beings biologized down to “bare life,” a plus (alive) or a minus (dead), where he or she (“it,” since the specificity of one’s gender no longer matters) could be fitted easily onto a chart.
The only universal goal of human life, thus reduced, can be brute survival. This is where — rather like Stephen Hawkings comment that all his theories broke down at the initiating instant of the big bang — the denied metaphysics of liberalism breaks down. In real life, no one survives. Even the “fascist know-nothing anti-science plods” can point this out, rather like Jordan Peterson trump-carding Kyle Kulinski’s reflexive reference to the “LGBTQIA+ community.”
Agamben’s political critique lay within this metaphysical critique, emphasizing what Carl Schmitt, the Nazi philosopher, called (and embraced with genocidal enthusiasm) “a state of exception” to liberal legal norms, including “rights” and “freedoms.” From 9–11 to the global war on terror to the pandemic to January 6th to a new European land war . . . the permanent state of exception.
“Fear is a poor advisor,” cautioned Agamben.
The . . . thing . . . that the epidemic has caused to appear with clarity is that the state of exception, to which governments have habituated us for some time, has truly become the normal condition. There have been more serious epidemics in the past, but no one ever thought for that reason to declare a state of emergency like the current one, which prevents us even from moving. People have been so habituated to live in conditions of perennial crisis and perennial emergency that they don’t seem to notice that their life has been reduced to a purely biological condition and has not only every social and political dimension, but also human and affective. A society that lives in a perennial state of emergency cannot be a free society. We in fact live in a society that has sacrificed freedom to so-called “reasons of security” and has therefore condemned itself to live in a perennial state of fear and insecurity.
Certain public intellectuals took notice of liberalism’s contradictions prior to the pandemic, too; and a conversation had started between them, which the pandemic amplified.
“Postliberalism,” a term to which I’d been introduced during my conversion to Christianity by theologians like Stanley Hauerwas, had jumped over the boundary between theology and more general public intellection. There were and are many disagreements among the interlocutors, but there is also a refreshing ladies-and-gentleman’s agreement among those conversants to keep talking themselves closer, rather than throwing down gauntlets, in a search for what Alasdair MacIntyre called “translatability” between “languages-of-use.” I myself have been drawn to this conversation as a refugee from the left . . . to listen to refugees from the right.
Postliberalism, even the strain of integralism which participates in it, is not important because it “has the answers.” It’s important because it asks the questions that have been foreclosed, and therein challenges the present regime at its truest foundations.
The most efficacious form of totalitarianism — as Del Noce knew — is not jackboots and midnight raids. That’s primitive totalitarianism. Refined, improved totalitarianism is when any counter-narrative is rendered “un-thinkable.” No, the postliberal conversation may not answer the un-thinkable questions in the same way, but the first step was to make them thinkable again. (See Michael Hanby’s excellent critical assessment of postliberalism here.)
Consider. Del Noce gives a critical account of the thought-act of periodization that sets something called “modernity” off by itself, which he uses himself with equal parts of irony and acceptance. This thought-act of periodization, when it describes “modernity” as humanity’s “adulthood,” assumes its own conclusions — that the past is to be overcome, that “progress” is inevitably bent toward improvement, that “pre-moderns” are backward. Once these premises become a cultural thought-habit, any question that would challenge them is eclipsed.
The totalitarianism of the foreclosed question is rooted on the denial of universal reason (participation in the Logos). The foreclosure is enforcd by making them enemy-questions. In Nazi terms, “you ask that question because you’re Jew.” In Maoist terms, “you ask that question because you’re a capitalist roader.” In more contemporary terms, “you are asking that question because you’re a terf.”
The war on transcendence has been prosecuted with this two-pronged pincer movement. It is a totalitarian achievement to the degree that that these foreclosures have captured our pseudo-culture, or in Del Noce’s terms, “semi-culture,” and our institutions.
This relates to the Battle of Woke Hill because some of the people who led me to an observation point of postliberalism were themselves cut from the herd for having raised forbidden metaphysical questions.
Obviously, liberalism, in the classical sense, is a political philosophy, and so postliberalism is necessarily oriented toward politics as well. The danger remains the same — that the political tail will wag the philosophical and metaphysical dog. That metaphysics will be instruemtalized and weaponized. This is the central error of the integralists and the “rad-trads,” the latter of whom became Trump supporters, based on “the enemy of my enemy is my friend”.
If we are to address our metaphysical crisis — to recover metaphysics — then the precondition of this recovery is the recovery of philosophy. Before, over, and above psychology, sociology, and politics — philosophy, all the way down. Obviously, then, this cannot begin and end as a “political project.” This is why the postliberal conversation — apart from all its problems and probable missteps — is crucial.
The worst in our world right now is the outcome of our politics-restricted horizon. We’d better learn to see beyond it. We’d better stop doing something and just sit there. We’d better recover contemplation. We’d better recover philosophy.
Yes, there are a few liberal goods we need to keep. No coercion of conscience. Juridical due process. Medicine (within Illichian limits). Personal property (within Polanyian limits). But it’s metaphysical prevarications have to be met head-on.
Form those who don’t, won’t, or can’t do philosophy, there’s Sabbath — as dictated by the first law of the decalogue. Rest and contemplation of all that is good, of things good in themselves, whether “useful” or not. This habit, this little rebellion against restlessness, instrumentalism, acquisition, and distraction, is for any and all . . . and therein prior to and above even philosophy.
Don’t just do something, sit there.
Sex & Vitalism
If, according to revolutionary thought, the proof of the truth of a theory must be found in its historical results, and if, therefore, any internal criticism of such thought must concern the heterogenesis of ends to which it must be subjected — or, “the betrayal of the revolution necessary for its success,” as it was argued especially by Ellul — we can say that the attempt to carry out a Marcusian revolution was truly a baffling example of this phenomenon. It was also truly unique in its kind because the “betrayal” did not take place afterwards but was intrinsic to the revolution of the “great refusal.” Indeed, it did not target the traditional values, which it regarded as already dead because they contradicted the development of bourgeois society, but rather the positivistic system of the “one dimensional man,” which involved the neo-capitalist society just as much as Soviet-type Communism. In fact, no revolution was ever a tool of its enemies as much as the one promoted by Marcuse’s philosophy, because its only victim was whatever remained of belief in the traditional values that the “system” had been unable to destroy. This task was carried out almost miraculously by the unexpected rebellion [European, 1968]. The form of its failure enabled neo-capitalism to get rid of the onerous influence of traditional values, which until then it had been forced to respect. Communism, on its part, achieved the result that philsophical Marxism came to be recognized as the discriminant factor of critical thinking, in the same way that Kantian thought had been regarded at the beginning of our century, i.e., as a position from which one could move on, but after having accepted all its negations against the philosophies of the past. Thus, the Marxian rebellion succeeded in creating the ideal conditions in which the system it was fighting could really establish itself in its novelty, and in which the truly oppressive nature of such a system — which Marxism denounced correctly — would no longer be perceived, since no real possibility was left to move beyond it. On the other hand, this was necessary: since Marcuse’s adversary, within secular thought, was positivist thought, his defeat could only coincide with the victory of positivism (in the broad sense of the word he used), and thus of the kind of positivism that appropriated Marcuse’s own arguments, turning them in its own favour.
We have observed that the formula “negation of tradition from within the system” applies to Reich’s philosophy. Of course, Marcuse wants to distinguish himself from Reich, and rightly so. Indeed, he attributes the success of Reich’s ideas to the fact that advanced industrial society grants the broadest sexual freedom, for the sake of “repressive desublimation,” in order to turn it into a market value and a factor of social consumption. In practice, however, the popularization of the idea of the permissive society has marked a progressive deteriorization, so that all that is left of Marcuse is what agreed with Reich. Thus, at the beginning of the Frankfurt School there is the acknowledgement of a practical defeat, that of critical Marxism by dogmatic Marxism. At its end there is another practical defeat, that of the sophisticated form of Marx-Freudism by Reich’s elementary version. (Del Noce)
For me, it was MacIntyre, Illich, and the utter incoherence of an ever more prevalent trans-gender ideology which put me in touch with postliberalism. Which brings me to sex and gender, which is no mere distraction and not reducible to culture-war as a political strategy. There is perhaps no point of reference, for both left refugees and right refugees in the postliberal conversation, more important than the topic of sex. And Del Noce, in his critique of the influence of Wilhelm Reich, has provided an illuminating geneaology of the so-called “sexual revolution” and its peculiar philosophical offspring, the contemporary gender war.
Del Noce identifies three inseparable aspects in the progressive phenomenon” “scientism, eroticism, and the theology of secularization.” Scientism is “the ‘totalitarian’ conception of science, in which science is regarded as the ‘only’ true form of knowledge.” It is the ideology of the affluent society and it is intrinsically totalitarian because it cannot prove is “claim that science rules out all other forms of knowledge, and thus certain dimensions of reality which are declared too be either unknowable or non-existent.” Although scientism claims to be morally neutral, it actually “includes as essential a form of morality . . . (the pure increase of vitality). (Lancellotti, from the Introduction to The Crisis of Modernity — Del Noce)
Marx is only one among the pivotal influences in late modernity. As foreshadowed in the lengthy quote above, we can’t escape Freud.
In the end, we can’t seem to escape Nietzsche either. I’ll give the latter bastard his due . . . he called out the nihilism gestating in the womb of liberalism. Liberal instrumental violence is directed against all that is “useless”: beauty, nature, goodness, contemplative truth, eternity — the transcendentals. It’s always aimed everywhere . . . and nowhere. The earth is shuddering before its rapacious advances right now. Nihilism in action. But again, I digress.
Freudianism was syncretically merged with Marxism prior to its twentieth century decomposition, and the result we see today is something that would have been recognizable (and even beholden) to Nietzsche, whose mission was “to overcome the burdens of oppressive social morality which had stunted humanity’s progression toward Promethean greatness.” (Paul Krause) The result of these three influences — Marx, Nietzsche, Freud — said Del Noce, was the triumph of what he called “vitalism,” not to be confused with the recent very-online phenomenon of masculinist vitalism, though there is a disturbing association.
A foreclosed question: Is human nature made or given — self- invention or gift. If emancipation from the past — from all forms of authority and tradition (and especially, God) — is the goal, and if the human being is (self) made, not given (created), what is the anthropological nature of this new being? Well, what does scientism tell us about this brute physical phenomenon, a human being with no inhering value or values?
Marx and Freud agreed on one fundamental postulate: human consciousness is the product of hidden forces, and not — as Greco-Christian tradition would have it, a divine spark—reason as an inhering and God-given faculty which participates in the gift (and order) of creation. (The vestige of “order of creation” is an “order of nature,” which itself could only be denied by the “postmodern” primacy of “constructivism.”)
It was only a matter of time before people began to merge Marx and Freud. In the 1920s, Soviet psychoanalysts went there. In the 1930s, William Reich and the “Frankfurt School” were the syncretists who went there.
It was Wilhelm Reich, the author of The Sexual Revolution, who popularized the bizarre notion that fascism was an outcome of sexual repression — as if Mussolini wasn’t a world class womanizer who ejaculated more often than he slept, or as if all the Italians who followed him were time bombs of “sexual repression.”
I have to loop around again here to gather another perspective into this reflection.
Earlier, I mentioned the radical feminists. This movement within a movement was/is fundamentally Marxist, but it was (like Reich’s sexual hypotheses) a transpositioned Marxism. Rad-fem’s proponents transpositioned class struggle conflict theory onto their own experiences (as sex struggle) often responding to their male comrades — many of whom, especially with regard to their sexual behavior, were just as exclusionary and predatory and unprincipled as an owner is with his workers. (Of course, the rad-fems were and are demonized as being . . . repressed, and therefore “fascists.”)
Rad-fems had a lot of legitimate grievances, even though this transposition was fundamentally faulty. Their observations were accurate (and courageous, in my view); but their interpretational framework failed them practically and philosophically. I contend that they are still worth listening to, especially with regard to their observations. It’s telling that Stanely Hauerwas, the postliberal theologian, actually made positive references to Catharine McKinnon. The rad-fems, who still believe in certain social restraints on sex, saw through Reich’s bullshit in about half a heartbeat, while the drug- and sex-addled youth culture of the misty sixties and seventies rehabilitated and embraced him. His “theory” of repression still has a good deal of cultural currency — because we are still scientistic.
Del Noce, in his remarks on de Maistre, says de Maistre “is certainly offensive in the way [he] seems to sanction the inferiority of women. But [he] is full of truth if the liberation of women is identified without absolute sexual freedom, as is the case today .”
The rad-fems were at least honest enough to recognize the ways in which more pervasive and thoroughgoing forms of abuse and exploitation were waiting in the wings of uncritical erotic permissiveness . . . and the ways in which this augured ill for women in general, contrary to ideological eroticism’s liberatory claims, which now march under the banner “sex-positive.” The rad-fems were for some time the only (outcast) feminists who opposed pornography and prostitution, pointing out the obvious fact that they are bad for society, and particularly bad for women (and children!).
The abusive epithet TERF, by the way, refers to “trans-exclusive radical feminists,” because they were among the first to recognize the dangers of transgender ideology.
End of loop.
In Reich, the transposition of Marxist conflict theory — the bourgeoisie versus the proletariat—onto a polarity of sexual repression versus sexual liberation, set up sex as the battering ram that would begin the assault not just on “repressive traditions” and old guard economic socialism (which had been very sexually conservative), but against “religion,” understood through the lens of the prevailing post-war ideological postulate of a polarity called religious versus secular (question-begging on a grand historical scale).
Reich’s thought is based on the premise . . . that there is no order of ends, no meta-empirical authority of values. Any trace not just of Christianity but of “idealism” in the broadest sense . . . is eliminated. What is man reduced to, then, if not to a bundle of physical needs? When these needs are satisfied — when, in short, every repression is removed — he will be happy . . . Having taken away every order of ends and eliminated every authority of values, all that is left is vital energy, which can be identified with sexuality . . . Hence, the core element of life will be sexual happiness. And since full sexual satisfaction is possible, happiness is within reach. (Del Noce)
“Religion” wrote Reich, “should not be fought, but any interference with the right to carry the findings of natural science to the masses and with the attempts to secure their sexual happiness should not be tolerated.” (emphasis added)
Abstraction, partiality, antagonism. Ideology.
Because Del Noce comes at it through many pages, I’m going to try to sketch out what he means by “vitalism,” the ideology he associates with Reich, the sexual revolution, and scientism. We can now extend this idea to the trans-humanist fashion.
The human being is reduced by post-Freudian scientism to a psychosoma — a mind-body, a “bundle of needs,” the satisfaction of which can produce the only happiness left to someone reduced to a body. What we’re seeking then is to maximize or optimize this bare psycho-somatic life through the production of vitality. In the scientistic absence of and opposition to transcendence, there can no longer be any moral outlook that reaches beyond vitality. This ideology, vitalism, then, absorbs morality.
There’s a background episteme here of the scientistically-reduced psychosoma as machine — an old time steam boiler, what I’ve called the steam-boiler theory of sex. If too much pressure (created by the blockages of “repression”) builds up, the machine will explode. (I’ve been monitoring my friends among the celibate Dominican Sisters for years now for this dangerous pressure build-up, but alas no explosions have been forthcoming.)
Vitalism regards us as meat machines requiring maintenance and optimization (one transhumanist apologist has called us “ape-brained meat sacks”), pursued by meeting these “needs,” one of them being sex, or sexual release in any and all modes. Lest we forget, Sartre, De Beauvoir, Foucault, and a host of French intellectuals signed a petition to legalize pedophilia. Not even the corrupt institutional apparatchiks of the Church, in their execrable attempts to cover up the abuse, which it at least still officially condemned, went this far.
With Freud, we were taught that these “needs” go from somatic to psycho-somatic, and only from there to psycho-social. Human happiness in the older sense of some form of philosophical satisfaction with one’s lot — including acceptance of suffering and death as part of the gift of life — was replaced by the idea of needs-satisfaction, or (machinic) optimization. Happiness came to be defined in a decidedly utilitarian, sensualist, and individualistic way. Freud just incorporated his interpretations of our psychological states into the calculus. Freudianism never represented itself as speculative, but always as natural science. The cause of suffering (which is now the utilitarian, sensualist, and individualistic medical-moral evil), in the Freudian-post-Marxian scheme, and the obstacle to satisfactions and pleasures (which are now the unqualified moral good), was “repression.”
Reich did something very metaphysically sly here. He undermined Marx’s theses on historical contingency and turned “fascism,” now defined medically, into something transhistorical. This move — to which we should pay closer attention in our new age of biopolitics — is what medicalization does best. (Reich responded to the sexual conservatism of the Soviets — who recognized the need need for some rapprochement with tradition to stabilize and consolidate the post-revolutionary state — by turning his new definition of fascism — as sexual “repression” — on the Soviets, calling them “red fascists.” Like cosmic turtles, new definitions all the way down.)
From where did all this sexual “repression” come?
The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living.
— Karl Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte
From God, authority, and tradition. The Past, that is . . . conceived of now as backward and arbitrary, unattached to any transhistorical human nature or any transhistorical order of Being. Reich apparently never came to terms with the contradiction between the implicit trans-historicity of his own primitivism and his anti-traditionalism.
In our liberatory future, work, suffering, beauty, sex, love . . . none of them actually “points to anything else.” They have no place in an order of Being (pop-psychology being the exception) nor any connection to the transcendent knowledge or experience of that order. (Most women appear to understand why this is bullshit better than most men.) Work, suffering, beauty, sex, love . . . they’re just actions, consequences, and needs — like my car needing an oil change. The goal of being a good person is replaced by the goal of self-optimization — or “well-being.”
Vitalist ideology— as an outgrowth of scientism — reduced the human being to brute psycho-somatic facts, to vital forces, the only thing measurable by science. Today, we see a neo-fascistic impulse to embrace “vitalism” by name, albeit applied to some mytho-primordial masculine mojo. Social Darwinist ideology always had a vitalist core — the “survival of the fittest,” an idea that writes nature as an agonal drama, “red in tooth and claw.” They’ve embraced Freud’s wolf-like savage, now as a therapeutic purgative (similar to Reich, whose primitivism was combined with steam-boiler sex theory).
In Del Noce, vitalism understands itself as self-optimization in the personal as well as social keys. That’s why it corresponded in times, places, and persons with eugenics. Hitler was a eugencist. So were Theodore Roosevelt, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Margaret Sanger, Winston Churchill, Nikola Tesla, and Jacques Cousteau. So was Teilhard de Chardin. Prior to Hitler’s earnest application of it, eugenics was strongly supported by the “enlightened” intelligentsia of the first half of the twentieth century even by black leaders like W.E.B. DuBois. It was the centerpiece of the progressive movement, embraced even by the progressive churches (which is a contradiction in terms). Species optimization through selective breeding was part and parcel of the “social hygiene movement.” In every case, the person is no longer given, or created from without, but self-making and re-inventable . . . optimizable — in the liberal case, as technocratic consumers, in the neo-right masculinist case, with male bodies remade as weapons and women’s as sex dolls, in the transhumanist case, as gender-self-selecting cyborgs.
In citing René Guénon and Simone Weil, Del Noce decsribes how the process underwritten by scientistic vitalism moves through its own solidification and into decrepitude, or “dissolution” — from futurism to presentism. I think we can see that more clearly now than ever, as manifold catastrophes — including the very terrestrial climate within which we exist — unmask the lie of futurism that we’re heading to some “earthly paradise.”
When the future dissolves, and transcendence has been foreclosed, we react first with, “Carpe diem.” Then, in utter confusion, we fall out with one another. Then we proceed onto despair and nihilism. All these are happening at once, now. (In radical presentism, even global nuclear war becomes thinkable again.) We may seem far afield of the Battle of Woke Hill, but we’re actually approaching its essence.
From this hyper-utilitarian reduction of human beings one can draw a nearly straight line to the wholesale absorption of ethical concerns into politics understood as low-intensity warfare — the war to “remake” or “restore” human human beings in competing images. As MacIntyre never tired of pointing out, in the absence of some unifying social and moral theme grounded in tradition, our large-scale, pluralistic society can only settle these differences — which are interminable based on incompatible postulates — by vastly empowering the Weberian bourgeois techno/bureaucratic apparatus. (On the other hand, as we are showing with scientistic materialism and the myth of the redemptive monopoly of politics, even this pluralism — of “identities,” lifestyles, and opinions — is illusory. Liberal society tends toward the destruction of real cultural plurality, and replaces it with “consumer diversity.” Michael Hanby has a very good lecture on that topic in this link.)
The disempowerment of the atomic individual in his or her daily life, and the loss of the intermediary roles of social formations like family and local associations, have virtually assured, with only the slightest disruptions in stability, the absorption of all moral questions into political warfare.
SIDE NOTE: I noted above with regard to the genuinely exceptional aspects of the American experience Del Noce overlooked, Del Noce’s account of secularization, likewise, places excessive responsibility on Marx for secularization, and for the missteps of the church for that matter. I can’t, while reading Del Noce, get past my readings of Charles Taylor and Ivan Illich, also Catholic thinkers, who would substantially thicken (and in some ways correct) Del Noce’s account.
Taylor and Illich share the position that secularization didn’t come about as a break with either Christianity or Christendom, but as the perversion of the former which gestated in the latter. No doubt, they shared Del Noce’s general critique of the optimizable human; but they’d give a great deal more attention to the post-Constantinian institutionalization of charity as secularism’s precursor — which began a good deal earlier than the period we call modernity.
The sexual revolution was crucial in these developments, both enabling and emblematic; and its no mystery why the Battle of Woke Hill constantly defaults to questions of “gender” and sexuality.
First of all, and stating the obvious, sex is powerful — as appetite and mental preoccupation — at least for those who are well-fed. I point this out, because I’ve been a witness to two food riots which defy description. No one was thinking of sex there. The Battle of Woke Hill isn’t happening for the hungry.
But for those — especially in the “developed” world — who haven’t more pressing things to do, sex and the subject of sex (and now, “gender”) are omnipresent in every conceivable way. It’s pheromonal air pollution. The power of sex is what makes the sexual revolution the perfect battering ram for the wholesale acceptance of bourgeois historical materialism and its vitalist “morality.”
As Lancellotti and Del Noce point out — as well as feminist interlocutors like Nina Power, Mary Harrington, Louise Perry, and Christine Emba — the problem with the sexual revolution is not reducible to conservative obsessions about women’s “loss of virtue,” or The Pill, or the threat of libertinism to our children. These are real; but there’s far more. Here and now, we’d point out how the sexual revolution’s promise of emancipation (1) has led to reinforcement of vitalist presuppositions and (2) how this “revolution” resulted not in liberation, but in the unprecedented intensification of sexual objectification and exploitation and the endangerment of women, some vulnerable men, and children.
There have been a number of “viral” articles published of late about the much lower frequency of sexual union among Millennials and Gen Z-ers. One article lamented the lack of “sex-positivism” among young people (bangs head against wall). But the truth of the matter — which is avoided because it might be perceived as political incorrect — is that they are having sex . . . by themselves . . . with their computers. The pornographic saturation of the internet has led ever more lonely young people into (1) an incapacity to have sex without escalating pornographic stimulation, (2) the reflexive sexual objectification of others that stands in the way of close relations (and in some cases leads to abuses), and (3) a form of sexual exhaustion (even aversion) in which people lose interest altogether.
When I was growing up in the fifties and sixties — and I’m not romanticizing, at all — but when porn was scarce and required an effort to seek it out, we all stayed horny as hedge sparrows (without turning into goose-stepping Nazis). And yet, in our vestigial ways (I became a sexual revolution captive by and by), we were still guided by various “repressive” norms to direct our sexual expression into respectful intersubjective relations. Was this imperfect? Hell yeah . . . we were already heading down the road to modern libertinism. Were these norms imperfectly and unjustly enforced? Yep. But I’ll challenge the notion that these “repressions” made sex less satisfactory (or dare I say, transcendent). “Liberation from repression,” as we see with the unfortunate people addicted to porn, has made sex less satisfactory, sometimes closing down actual sexual relations, and removed sex from a position within transcendent reality altogether.
Recapping: what we were going through, alongside the sexual revolution, between the late fifties and early seventies, was the philosophical transition from Kantianism to moral relativism. (It’s no accident that this corresponded to the transition from Keynesianism to neoliberalism in economics.)
The Cold War facilitated the destruction of vestigial Kantianism and our ideological colonization by vitalism. The post-war rivalry between the Soviet Union and the US/NATO generated a technological race to see which side could satisfy material desires, understood vitalistically. Unlimited satisfaction of (potentially unlimited) desires means unlimited consumption, which means unlimited production (economic growth).
Returning momentarily to Adolph Reed’s leftist lamentations, he at least sees clearly how the Marxist project of working class political mobilization is utterly incompatible with vitalism, hedonism, “Freudian-Marxism,” the Frankfurt School, libertinism, anarchopunk adventurism, “woketivism,” phrasemongering (“abolish the family” e.g.), “anti-racist” charlatanism, sophomoric scandalizing as “activism,” et cetera, et al. He was witness to the “social revolution” of the sixties and seventies; and he saw how it broke down into paranoid adventurism on the one hand and sex/drug addiction on the other — sometimes in the same persons.
“[T]here is a necessary connection,” wrote Del Noce, “between eroticism and the ‘artifical paradises’ of drug addiction.”
Reed would recognize in Del Noce that Marx and Reich are formally antagonistic, standing, as Del Noce remarked, “on the opposite side of a veritable philosophical abyss.”
Being a Hegelian, Marx thought that the absolute is not found at the beginning of history, but rather in its outcome. According to Reich, on the contrary, there is a primitive dimension from which we moved away through sexophobic morality, and to which we must return by reinserting civilization into nature. (Del Noce)
Adolph Reed, anecdotally, was raised in a New Orleans Creole Catholic family, his mother strongly influenced by the Catholic Worker movement. He has clung to his “older” Marxism, which at least maintained some common sense materialism in the idea that there is an ontological reality that remains immune to “construction,” “deconstruction,” and pop-psychology. History still replaces God as a ground for metaphysics, but at least he still has a ground.
In my own days as a left activist, I had a strong engagement with post-Marxist “radical feminists,” and I learned a great deal from them. Their transposition of Marxian conflict theory — with women as the proletariat and men as the bourgeoisie — led them to a “gender-abolition” position, gender not meaning what the poststructuralists mean, but cultural/patriarchal impositions on biological sex that work to women’s disadvantage and oppression.
I have long since abandoned their “gender abolition” orientation, but they were, and continue to be, vilified by the left, for merely observing aloud that with the advent of the so-called sexual revolution, the levels and forms of women’s sexual exploitation exploded instead of diminished. This simple statement of fact was so disruptive to the prevailing ideologies of the left that it was met with ferocious attacks. Like the observation by some that with widely available hormonal contraceptives, abortion rates rose instead of fell, the simple assertion of (ideologically inconvenient) facts was met not with reason, but rage. (You’re asking that question because you’re sex-negative.)
The other thing the rad-fems correctly observed was how the public-private dichotomy opened the door to all sorts of mischief with regard to sex. First, it was behind closed doors, in private, where husbands could still beat and rape their wives; then it was the right-to-privacy and the right to sexual “choice” — promised as liberating narratives — that now serve as apologetic walls for prostitution and the exploitative, racist, misogynistic, and often violent porn industry.
We have an almost patellar reflex when anything seems to threaten what’s done between ostensibly consenting adults. Again, we can’t explore the complications and nuances, because ethics has been swallowed up by politics. One dare not give the “bad guys” a talking point (even if it’s true). The truth is subordinate to political strategies, because politics has the redemptive monopoly.
Del Noce thought that the left itself was doomed to become “bourgeoisified,” by losing its ties to the working classes and becoming focused on causes broadly linked with sexuality. By doing so it would end up embracing an essentially individualistic and secular idea of happiness, which French sociologist Jacques Ellul had called the bourgeois trait par excellence. Conversely, politics would no longer be the expression of a fabric of social life organized around families, churches, ethnic neighborhoods, trade unions, etc., because all of them were being undermined by the individualism of the new culture. (Lancellotti)
It’s a culture that now demands not only the existence of a man who calls himself a woman (sure, he exists), but that he be acknowledged by others to be a woman. Call yourself whatever you want, but no one is obliged to accept it. The demand is that we all acknowledge as fact the absolutely obvious falsehood or delusion of his claim to be a woman. He (or she) is not, not by any definition of woman ever. . . until Judith Butler’s neo-Nietzscheanism colonized the Academy. But it’s new, so it must be true. The old categories of man and woman are oppressive — dangerous, even murderous, by their very existence.
Refusing to accept this claim doesn’t mean I or anyone else hates the “trans-identified,” it means I’m not going to say or believe shit I know not to be true. I don’t hate anyone, and I don’t sanction violence against anyone.
Gender — in the older sense, of a complementarity that encompasses bieng itself, as well as biological sexual dimorphism — has an ontological status. In Aristotelian terms, gender is a complementarity of form —given form that precedes and supersedes the Butlerian attempt to overcome reality through the arbitrary assertion that reality is without forms, a “performance,” and that the “self” is made, even made-up, but never, ever given.
Now, some on the right do want us to hate folks, or even accept violence against them. Absolutely not. Every person is a child of God, worthy of our love and care. “Let whoever is among you is without sin be the first to cast a stone at her.” If living into a lie — and not just the gender lie — is condemnable by social death, how many of us are left standing? We live in a society built on them. Like microplastics, lies are now circulating in our blood.
On the other hand again, plenty of people don’t want their kids propagandized with obvious falsehoods and alien values in compulsory public schools.
Does saying a man is not a woman give a talking point to someone who advocates violence against sexual minorities? It could. Does that mean we should re-transmit falsehoods to deny an advantage to our enemies? Uh, nope.
Were the rad-fems right? About the transposition of Marxian categories onto sex, no. About gender abolition, no. About the bad outcomes of the sexual revolution, yes. About trans-ideology, a qualified yes (it’s not a conspiracy against women, but it is pure ideology with no trace of truth). The irony is that the rad-fems weren’t cast out of bourgeois semi-culture for what they said and say that was wrong, but for their most obvious and demonstrably accurate observations: Men are not women, or vice versa. Women are not the same as men. “Sex-work” is not like other jobs. “Sex work” is an ideological term to legitimate prostitution. The porn industry is violent, exploitative, misogynistic, and often racist. Even the right-wing woke-panicked know perfectly well, as do most honest people, that prostitution and porn “acting” are not “just jobs,” like working at Costco, but hellish forms of exploitation. We oughtn’t disagre with them or the rad-fems when they’re right.
The woke have given the woke-panicked the political stick with which to beat them. They are winning the “culture war” in many places. When they ask the question, “What is a woman?” their opponents can’t give a straight answer or an answer that makes a damn bit of sense. This is an important issue — to women themselves, whose spaces are being invaded by men — but it’s also a gift to the most execrable on the right. Like Marjorie Taylor Greene, for God’s sake!
Man is a form, not an identity. Woman is a form, not an identity. Either natural forms have an ontological status, or they don’t.
It boils down to the question of whether or not our nature is given (created) or self-invented. The most pugnacious of transgender ideologues (discursive alliance with them is a woke loyalty oath) have transmogrified the language, giving “gender” — which once extended from sexual dimorphism out to and through the universe as fitted-ness, as complementarity — a new meaning altogether. The new meaning — call it gender self-identification — shares the same metaphysical postulates as transhumanism, or children who imagine they can turn themselves into birds or bats.
Culture and Nature
Woke culture wants the sermon on the mount, but without God and without forgiveness.
— Paul Kingsnorth
None of this is to say that woke-panic — “woke” began from generally charitable impulses (^^^) and was perverted by the redemptive monopoly of politics — is not itself problematic. Woke-panic is also wielded as a political weapon, as a means of transforming those with whom we disagree (based on propaganda and tribal affiliations) into mortal enemies. It’s scare-mongering, and its greatest beneficiaries are political demagogues who privately don’t give a shit.
Left and right are equally irrational and morally bankrupt, because the both have been ideologically co-colonized by the redemptive political monopoly. This the unintended consequence of a philosophical error of which I myself was guilty, not having understood two things: the outcomes of the decomposition of Marxism, and the sense in which atheism is the metaphysical precondition of historical materialism — which triumphed in the West.
As Lancellotti says, in the Introduction to his English translation of Del Noce’s The Crisis of Modernity, “[A]ll of Marx’s thought is a consistent development of the radical metaphysical principle that freedom requires self-creation.” (italics in the original)
That can mean self-creation as individuals or the creation of new people through social and technological engineering. Before we can commit to either, we have to shed the idea that we’ve already been created, and so we have to lose the Creator, the Alpha and Omega of that ultimate evil — dependency. Freedom is opposed to necessity.
Let’s at least recognize and admit that the sexual revolution presupposes its own technologies; which puts into question the application of the political fiction of “natural” rights with regard to everything from birth control pills to puberty blockers to “transitional” surgery and post-op maintenance. Thes are constitutionally artificial, even industrial, rights.
Writ larger that the sexual revolution — which acted as a kind of Trojan horse — the new ideology is the fulfillment, albeit not in economic terms, of Trotsky’s dream of “permanent revolution.” Today’s social justice warriors, especially of the Butlerian variety, implicitly propose revolution against everything (it’s all “deconstructable”). One can go online and find denunciations of everything from “kink-shaming” to everything-privilege to . . . mealtimes?
It’s a bottomless well, being against anything that smacks of that repressive cesspool of tradition. If tradition is what’s handed down (and no, traditions are not static — an anti-traditionalist lie), and if everything handed down is to be opposed, and if everything there is (like the very language we are using this instant) is handed down . . . and therefore to be overturned . . . and if the first and most important mediators doing the handing down are parents and family . . . then this nihilistic impulse of opposing all that is from the past can only lead to a wholesale opposition to the instutution of family. And Reich (along with as a host of “radicals” and “revolutionaries”) was explicit that this was exactly what he was aiming at. (And here the Reichians and some — not all — rad-fems are reconciled.)
Independent thinkers and various types of conservatives intuit the family-abolition claim correctly. It’s not like people are hiding it. Most of us, as the retrograde ape-brained meatsacks we are, still cling to family as a redoubt in an ever more indecipherable and hostile world, as the group which calls up our first and last loves, our first loyalties and obligations, the only place where love trumps profit and instrumentalism. For this reason, the radicals and revolutionaries (mea culpa) continue to be self-marginalizing. The liberal response to this reality — no less nihilistic in the long view, but far cannier— is to incrementally supplant the family in its role of “handing down,” using compulsory public education, for example, and it its material and emotional support functions, by substituting technocratic experts. If opposing this makes me a conservative, then I am a conservative. But, of course, this equal-sign is mendacious all the way down.
When a cruel and opportunistic politician like Ron DeSantis opposes “critical race theory” in schools (by which he means any reference to US chattel slavery, since the Frankfurt School isn’t being taught to fourth graders), he’s throwing red meat to his race-panicked white base. But when he says he doesn’t want liberals conveying their sexual ideologies to captive children, I’m afraid I’m with him 100 percent. One, because I disagree with the state’s embrace of vitalism. Two, because I don’t want the technocratic state to force alien ideas on children against their parents. Three, because I disagree with their sex ideology. In other words, I want the family — in its several forms — to be more formative than the state, prior to the state, and a mediating buffer between the person and a soulless and hegemonic technocracy.
Those who oppose family do so because they want to overthrow the past and establish themselves as the mediators of the new future, but it’s a politically-tactical non-starter for them to say it aloud; so they aim to transform family into something else altogether — what Illich called a value-adding consumer unit . . . with some Disney sentimentalism to fill the void created by techocratic society.
Bromides about how culture is downstream from law do not avail when there is no longer a culture.
— Michael Hanby
Del Noce described late modern “culture” as “semi-culture,” a culture no longer rooted in place or tradition, but one utterly mediated by . . . well, media. Culture is now mass produced; and this relates in many ways to the ways in which our incarnate human “first nature,” perceptible in metaphysical terms, has been eclipsed by the “second nature” of technology — generations now “living in their phones.” Our semi-culture and our second-nature have supplanted real culture and deskilled our first-nature. We are losing the skills necessary to more fully live into our real (first) nature. This impoverishment is far closer to the core of our metaphysical and spiritual crisis than politics, or economics, or even ecology, the crises of which are the ramifications of, as well as reproducers of, the metaphysical crisis.
Ivan Illich lamented that this “semi-culture,” driven by accelerating cycles of produce-and-consume, had engulfed former vernacular modes of life and “enmeshed [them] into a new web of dependence on commodities that flow out of the same kind of machines, factories, clinics, television studios, and think tanks.” And cell phones.
On think-tanks. Yes, I was once part of the non-profit world, the place where groupthink goes to flourish, which brings me back after our excursion into sex and semi-culture to the unfathomable chasms of things to desire and things to be against.
My first negative experience of the dark pit of privilege denunciation, back in the nineties, was when I was doing some organizing against transnational industrial hog farms in Eastern North Carolina, which had driven small farmers out of business, poisoned the land, water, and air, and physically broken legions of low-wage workers. Those with grievances were white, black, and Latino. A group of “consultants” and “facilitators” from the Triangle (Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill), all with graduate degrees, trying to talk their way into the edges of this coalition, aggressively pitched their pricey “workshops” for us on “white privilege.”
I’d seen them around. They had clients pay them to be denounced, whereupon the properly-denouncd clients could wear their hair shirts in public as virtue-signalling white-liberal-guilt displays. Back when the non-profit funds were flowing like rivers out of the nineties financial bubble, this sadomasochistic shit was quite lucrative.
Let me back up and say, for the record, that racism, and racial politics are real things in the US. They really are the historical sedimentation of a pretty ugly history, sustained in many respects by economic, residential, and cultural succession. Race hatred and racialist ideas are likewise successive, which is why white supremacy as an ideology still finds it way via individuals into institutions which are legally proscribed from racial discrimination. Residential and cultural succession, however, is not inherently bad, even if, in capitalist societies, economic succession is usually bad. Are ethnic neighborhoods inherently bad?
Culture — where it actually exists, no matter how it has evolved or been diluted — is closely associated with place and traditions (tradere, to hand down). We ourselves raised three black children, and I was the one — having trained guards in nuclear weapons plants on the police criteria for using deadly force — who emphasized to the boys that they should keep their hands visibly on top of the steering wheel during cop stops . . . because some cops are quick to shoot young black men. It’s the damn truth, not just woke politics, and I’d have been a negligent parent not to have done so.
Nonetheless, I told the “white privilege trainers” that I disagreed with the whole premise of their training (which prefigured the charlatan Robin DiAngelo by a decade and a half). That premise being that “whiteness” inheres with the pathology of racism, because of “privilege.” (a) Not true, (b) non sequitur.
These mostly white, graduate-degreed grifters wanted to “teach”” this to a white Eastern North Carolina farmer who’d worked his ass off all his life, lost his livelihood, and who’d grown up working with black men in the tobacco barns where they’d sweat on one another and broke bread together. They also wanted to “teach it” to the black farmer who’d known the white farmer most of his life. Hell, they wanted to teach it to me, and I’d spent over two decades in the most thoroughly integrated institution in the world, the US Army. I’m a member of a “military creole” family.
The arrogance of these people — who could afford eight bucks for a fucking cup of coffee — was just astonishing. My employing organization prevailed upon us to send one skeptical white guy, and he was thrown out of “the course” because he refused to concede their premise after being bullied for two days in their boring-ass classes.
Not to leave myself un-criticized, I had been (and was, at the time) a member of two communist cadre organizations. One perennial complaint (not from my latter organization, because we had an aggressive affirmative action criterion built into membership intake) was that leftist organizations had trouble recruiting and keeping “people of color” (another meaningless woke-speak term). We ignored (almost intentionally) the main reason the left had a hard time recruiting black and Latino members, as well as anyone who was genuinely working class — atheism.
As I spell out what I’m just going to call leftist-racism, I’m going to relate it to the phenomenon called Antifa (no, it’s not an identifiable group), because it shares the racism of the left.
I wrote a provocative Facebook post a while back in which I just said, “The whitest and male-ist and most bourgeois phenomenon in the US is atheism.” Of course, people chimed in with “exceptions,” whereupon I explained that this was a statistical, not an essential, claim. These three categories are all over-represented among American atheists. Leftists, themselves over-represented in these three categories, are largely irreligious or anti-religious, too. This is not the case among African Americans or Latinos — the two largest “people of color” cohorts in the US. I heard a black guy exclaim once, “they took everything else from us, and now these so-called saviors want to take away God?!”
When this is posed to leftists, especially of the “woke” variety, especially the white-woke, they’re caught on the horns of a dilemma. They’ve repeatedly declared the priorities of “identity” and “inclusion” in their defenses of whatever they take to be (I’ll just use one example) “black culture,” but one of the constants in whatever exists that might be called American black culture is Christianity — which is one of the things that has to be jettisoned in the name of the permanent revolution against . . . well, everything from the past: God, family, tradition. After all, Marx said that the dead suffocate the living, and Thomas Jefferson said that the dead should not rule the living. (Black culture for Jefferson was named Sally Hemings.) In all my time with the left, even with a cadre organization that was half black, I never heard any black person say, “Abolish the family,” or “Breakfast, lunch, and dinner are racist.”
The way woke-leftists and even old-leftists get past this contradiction — we love black culture/we oppose Christianity — is by avoiding it in conversation. It’s okay to shit all over the religion of other white people; but they’ll walk on eggs over the issue with black people, even embracing selective black pastors in phony shows of racial solidarity. (Forget about Latino Catholics, though. Leftists hate Catholics, and never miss an opportunity to denounce the Church. And yes, there are black Catholics — a couple hundred million worldwide.)
White “progressives” can and will say that white religious people are backward, and even mock their faith, but they’ll hold their tongues about black people, about whom they believe exactly the same thing, in a selective and tokenistic display of pandering, which translates: they think black people are too stupid to see this hypocrisy. Leftist racism.
All of us already know what white “progressives” think from the difference in the conversations they hold with white folks like them and with black people — this conversational code-switching also being characteristic of your everyday, garden variety white racist who takes the racial epithets out of his vocabulary within earshot of black people.
Now, Antifa. Again, these anarcho-punks — who claim to be fighting racial oppression — were largely responsible for the violent escalations of Black Lives Matter protests in recent years. These street actions were planned as non-violent actions by black organizers, but when the white anarchopunks (heavily infiltrated, by the way, by police provocateurs who encouraged these violent escalations) showed up, they started breakings things, and the mimetic escalations took off from there.
It was once remarked that the Black Panther Party, who eschewed and denounced the Christian non-violence of Dr. Martin Luther King and others, by the mid-seventies was half thugs and half cops. Police “false flag” provocateurs are attracted to violent phrasemongering like rabbits are to radish greens.
Like the leftists (and liberals!) who claim to stand for an end to “racism,” the Antifa punks appear to be fighting for an abstraction, because they spend very little time listening to or giving any credence to — apart from tokenistic patronizing — actual black people . . . including the black organizers of the events the anarchopunks colonize after other people put in the effort to coordinate . . . or what the majority of black people might think and believe about the anarcho-punks themselves.
All of them want to have their ideological cake and eat it, too.
On the other hand, and this is directed at some “conservatives,” your too-convenient, category-errored conflation of “racism” with “transphobia” and other woke neologisms displays historical ignorance at best and bigotry at worst. You’d better exerise a little more discernment. Yes, liberals can weaponize it inappropriately. Yes, woketivists can massivley overextend the accusation of racism as a form of irrational virtue-signalling. But racism is real, it’s alive, and it remains one of the unspoken and yet most powerful organizing principles of the US Republican Party. Those guys riding around with guns and Conferderate flags mean it. Race hatred is still a very big deal in the US, and the complications introduced by lefty shambling, woke virtue signalling, and techocratic liberal opportunism do not relieve us of the responsbility to make the discerning effort to acknowledge, understand, and address it. Opposing real racism is not woketivism. It’s the lowest baseline of common decency and morality! And the “good ones” are not those who are the most thoroughly assimilated into the dominant subculture. If you valorize the ethnic neighborhood as a buffer agaisnt the technocracy, that applies to black and brown people, too. Make sure the beam is out of your own eye before you cite the speck in others’. That doesn’t mean appointing yourself as a trigger-happy ideological cop; but it does at least mean withholding your comments until you know what the hell you’re talking about.
Race rant over. Back to God, will, truth, freedom, and reason.
Will, Reason, Truth, and Freedom
[Del Noce] was surely correct that, if a metaphysics of participation is true, then it must be reflected in the order of cognition without annulling the difference between creature and Creator or bypassing the role the senses play in our coming to know. The reality of an order of truth that is not reducible to social, political, or mechanical functions finally hinges on this. (Michael Hanby)
Catholics have a metaphysical account of desire at the top of which there is God (beware integralists, I’m going to prove you wrong). God is the Creator. the Giver. Creation is the Given. Reason is the God-given capacity in the human creature to grasp (participate in) truth, which exists, as part of the given Order of Being. Reason, or access to the Divine Order, is the imago Dei, the “image” of God, the divine spark in human nature. Reason is the capacity to get at truths, which, taken as the whole which humans can never fully grasp, constitute The Truth. Desire, will, and reason are linked by an ontology, or else we’re strapped to a rampaging beast. Reason can be perverted by vice — pride being high on that list — and reason is enhanced in its capacities by the virtues. Human beings, unimpeded by vice, will naturally desire to know truths; and virtuous, or orderly, desire aims at Truth, which ultimately resides in God. It is human nature to desire transcendence, a yearning to exprience that which can not be “used,” but only contemplated. Reason is not limited to rationalism, because God and God’s truths are more than merely empirical. The order of Being involves recognizable forms that are more than the sum of their disaggregated parts. Truths are revealed. Beauty, for example, must be grasped beyond words and concepts and mathematical computations. Beauty is a harmonious revelation. Beauty is use-less, and yet invaluable. Freedom, in this scheme, is not mere personal choice, detached from the whole in Humean fashion. Freedom is the capacity to accept and grasp, or ignore, or reject truth — and not just the two-dimensional truth particles of modernity.
The “truths” of scientism are the truths of technological society. The haven’t freed us from the past; they’ve enslaved us to the very technological processes — upon which we become helplessly dependent — that make the partial and atomized “truths” of modernity exclusively accessible in the first place.
The human being, the imago Dei, desires to participate in the truth, the Order of Being, immanent and transcendent (God is both); and that desire aims ultimately at mending the divided will— to “rest in God.” Desire has, and requires, a telos. Disordered desire lacks a telos. It is forever at odds with itself, and bottomless. It is rest-less.
Reason, instrumentalized at the expense of participation, has been cut off from contemplation by divesting us of the transcendental objects of contemplation.
The divided will is never free. It’s been consigned to a writhing pit of disordered desire — one has become the slave of one’s own desires, as well as of the processes that underwrite the transient infinity of desirable objects untethered to any metaphysical end.
On the other hand (integralists!), when we attempt to enforce the acceptance of the truth, the truth is no longer given, a divine gift, but imposed — no longer true. What is given can only be truly received if received freely. To insist on its enforcement is to convert the truth into a lie. Grace replaced by violence is a failure to grasp the truth.
Participatory reason — participating in God/Truth/Creation/Order of Creation — sails between the Scylla of disordered desire/ reason (freedom lost) and the Charybdis of trying to impose Grace by violence (freedom lost).
The progressive forecloses meaningful freedom by denying God and instrumentalizing reason, in the name of a false “freedom” from dependency (including from one’s own nature!). The “reactionary” forecloses meaningful freedom by transforming it from gift to imposition. Both, in Michael Hanby’s words, “replace ‘true and false with ‘friend and enemy.’
In Platonic-Christian thought, man is in a necessary relationship with God and in a contingent relationship with society. . . . For Marxist atheism, the relationship with society becomes necessary and constitutive. Therefore in Marxism the Christian subordination of politics to ethics must be replaced by the absorption of ethics into politics. (Del Noce)
Liberal/progressive churches stepped on the slippery slope of irreligion, of the immanentization of God, and the covert war on transcendence which ultimately aims at atheism, the moment they sociologized the faith. (Progressive churches were in the vanguard of the eugenics movement.) Then again, church conservatives have committed the same error in reverse, when they described the church’s most important role as its (politically) civilizing function.
The intergalist view, while criticized by Del Noce and others, also sometimes seems to correspond with many of other postliberal critics in the fetishization of “Western Civilization,” in my view — such as that view stands right now. If you can talk me out of it, so be it; but I’m unconvinced — even though it certainly was the historic vessel of Christianity, warts and all — that Western civilization is, in its “cvilizational” aspect, worthy of our veneration as synonymous with Christianity. Neither pagan Rome nor Greece, while each had its part to play, was synonymous with the heart of our faith, with the incarnation, with cross and resurrection, with the second person of the Trinity.
Civilization qua civilization is an immanent and historically contingent phenomenon. Nonetheless, Christian history dwelled in and even poached from these ante-Christendom civilizations to make its own. As a discursive device, “Western civilization” triggers my inner Hauerwas with all his warnings about Constantinianism and war. I want to acknolwedge that I’m a product of Western civilization, and that — like all civilizations — there were great achievements (and great crimes alongside and even entangled with those accomplishments).
I worry how easily this term — without qualification, and I don’t mean the reflexive teardowns of progressive ideologues — maps onto a warlike form of conservative, or should I say in more contemporary terms, neoconservative, and even Trumpian, narrative of defense. Defense of Western Civilization against “islamofascism” on one hand or “illegal aliens” on the other.
My hesitation is Christian, neither progressive nor radical. Christianity, or should I just say Christ, will not “fail,” even if Western civilization goes the way of the Achaemenid Empire. Stanley Hauerwas said — and I believe him — “Never think that you need to protect God. Because anytime you think you need to protect God, you can be sure that you are worshipping an idol.” I don’t want to worship “Western civilization” as an idol by making it synonymous with our faith. It’s a major setting for our theodrama, yes, but that drama is also taking place in Haiti, the Philippines, China, and the DRC, too. Catholic means universal. “Western cilivization” is not eternal or universal, and the order of Being will go on without it — even within civilizational decay. Christians and Christianity persisted through Nero, the Plague, and World War II. They practice the faith right now in China. Jesus needs no bodyguards.
Should we seek to preserve the goods of Western Civilization? You bet. But that has to look a lot more like MacIntyre’s Benedictine analogy than the Crusades. Jesus withdrew into the wilderness; and he didn’t mount an angelic assault on Jersualem and Rome. His was the way of the cross; “civilization,” if history is any judge, is the cosmos — the way of the sword.
I won’t rehash Charles Taylor’s theses here. Read his stuff. It’s well worth the price of admission. Instead, we’ll do a flyover of “secularism,” which is too similar to scientism to outline any major differences. The very division of “secular” from “religious,” both categories too broad and vague to operationalize, is a pure ideological invention. It’s an idea converted into a premise.
The scientistic and technocratic “progressives” are epistemologically blind to the fact that actual science (in practice) can only study relations and forces, and has no capacity to study values, or even wholes, for that matter. It can map the wholes, and yet never unearth the essences. More deeply, scientistics (as well as many practicing scientists) are utterly blind to the question-begging manner in which our reduction of “science,” which prior to the Baconian revolution meant knowledge, to natural sciences has foreclosed our very capacity to question this reduction. Richard Dawkins, for example, has absolutely no idea how ignorant and superficial he really is.
The pugilistic physicalism of the Dawkins/Hitchens camp reminds me of those geriatric Japanese soldiers still guarding their jungle bunkers three decades after the war was over. It was no longer necessary. Strong subterranean atheism had already prevailed with the depublication of the transcendent and the provision of televised Disneyism in every home. Dawkins has the no more philosophical depth than Kyle Kulinski — host of . . . “Secular Talk.”
Which brings us to the very notion of “secular.”
“The idea is transformed into a premise.” Prior to the invention of the secular-religious dichotomy, people would have intuitively understood that such a division is nonsense. It’s still nonsense, but it’s become an article of (ahem) religious faith in modern society. Those who insist that “religious” convictions should be external to the political sphere (privatized) fail to comprehend that no stable political system can exist without a set of “religious” convictions (myths) about what is and is not sacred. In my country and every other, it’s not a question of whether religous principles should underwrite governance. It’s simply not possible to do otherwise. The attempt to conceal our mythical premises behind the word “secular” in no way changes that. No polity can exist without the sacred, or without a myth that narrates it.
The sacred provides “points of reference,” wrote Jacques Ellul. Without it, we’d be quickly exhausted by the inability to make decisions, even political decisions. The sacred establishes necessary discriminations: pure/polluted, permissible/forbidden, and so on.
It places in front of and around man a certain number of boundaries, of limits. Thus it defines a domain in which man is free, together with a forbidden, or rather, an untouchable domain. The domain is one of actions, rites, places, and times. The points of reference and the limits always have a very firm, and finally, a very pragmatic quality. It is always a matter of knowing what it is possible to do, and sometimes how and where to do it. From then on, the sacred defines a certain order of action, for it is precisely that action which cannot be carried out thoughtlessly. It is appointed in a given space. (Ellul, New Demons)
Myths are narrative instantiations of the sacred. Jean-François Lyotard, author of The Postmodern Condition, referred often to “little narratives.” Myths are not interchangeable in form, Ellul insisted, even though myth could be described as transhistorical in function. For Ellul, there is a metanarrative (which Lyotard prematurely pronounced dead), and that metanarrative is the environment, not in the popular modern sense, but as the inescapable constant of social/material/temporal context within which human beings require the “points of reference” provided by myth.
One all-embracing definition of myth robs it of just that which makes it a myth. According to this, a myth is the interpretation of a very direct relationship between man and the temporal structure of his life. Outside that relationship his life is dust and absurdity. It doesn’t seem to me that any overall definition is possible which would apply equally to our twentieth-century myth and those of three thousand years ago. […] If myth is a mirror of man’s reflection, if it is an explanation of man’s action, if it is a grasp on and a justification of man’s situation hic et nunc, if, finally, it is an image of the most mysterious depths of man in confrontation with a given reality, then it cannot, by its very nature, be the same now as then. Myth necessarily appears in specific forms, but its characteristics and reasons are constant and common to all. (Ibid.)
Ellul, defining myth as a anthropological constant, denied that “secular” society had done away with myth. It is “rational” modernity’s denial of it’s own mythological character which Ellul challenges. We haven’t abandoned myth at all. Older myths — like Biblical myths which openly understood themselves as such — have been supplanted by new ones, which dissapear from direct view behind “unthinkable questions.”
The modern liberal meta-myth is that of progress: (a) human beings are inherently good, (b) the human being’s highest good is “happiness,” (c) only material things matter, and (d) humanity is on a teleological road to self-perfection. The modern sacred subject is “the individual.” The modern sacred cow is “personal choice,” and so forth. In the US, we religiously venerate war and soldiery. As Hauerwas said, what is sacred is what we consider worth dying (and killing) for. We’re crazy if we die for “religion,” but heroes if we die (or kill) for the (sacred) nation. The mythical New Atlantis. It will tolerate no other gods before it.
What is happening right now — intellectually inaccessible in the secular-religious, scientistic, etc. framework — is a breakdown of organizing myth. This accounts for the inability of “conservatives” and “progressives” to articulate a coherent response to this disruptive, dissolutionary period. And so, like a frustrated blind couple, they take it out on each other in fights.
Politics as a redemptive monopoly has run into a perfect storm, something that in many ways has rendered every “side” who subscribes to this idea an anachronism. Not only has the world run into the manifold crises of failing financialism, ecological limits to “growth,” and the incalculable and unpredictable ramifications of biospheric collapse; we are faced with the digital age, in which the sheer speed of “development,” protected and encouraged by the shibboleths of an older politics, has outrun the capacity of political reflection and action — even of the most cynical kind — to keep up.
Virilio warned us about speed. Even Del Noce, with all his prescience, failed to appreciate what would happen when a politics that runs at horse speed is faced with tech-development running at Mach 5. Two nuclear-armed powers — the US and China — may stumble into a war neither wants nor needs . . . over access to microchips.
And yet the unhappy blind couple, consumed by their antagonism, squabble away while the house burns. There are no arguments which can be referred outside to any authority. The fight has degenerated into name-calling . . . the contagion narrative . . . cooties.
I remember when progressive “influencer” ideologues routinely referred to Trump supporters as “MAGA chuds,” chud meaning unwoke. If they had more philosophical or even plain scholarly depth, they might upgrade their analyses from name-calling by showing some awareness of the historically demonstrable fact that societies and nations are always held together by some animating myth, including an origin myth.
“Make America Great Again” resonated not primarily because it was racist or sexist or whatever — that was all incidental and far from universal. Many women and racial minorities supported Trump. MAGA is only intelligible as the desire to recuperate the unifying and Pelagian myth of America as the New Atlantis, the Jeffersonian city on the hill.
Progressives never grasped this, because they’d already convinced thmselves that MAGA is a kind of zombie infection. While many Trump supporters may be longing in vain (and even foolishly) for this mythical recovery as a restored future, they’ve actually intuited a truth — that the unification of values, expressed in mythic form, is constitutive of social stability.
Their intuitions are more accurate, in this respect, than the progressives, whose own “new future” is every bit as foolish as any Trump cultist. No authentic culture can be stably sustained without some common recognition of reality; and politics in an artificial, mass-produced, commercial “culture” can only be controlled, and this only temporarily, by bureaucratic/technocratic managerialism.
As all higher values collapse, scientistic anti-traditionalism can be represented only by large-scale economic-bureaucratic organizations. The defining charactersitic of totalitarianism is the extinction of the individual, by which I mean the individual inasmuch as he enters into relationship with the absolute. (Del Noce)
The distinctions between “bare life” and “a human life,” between bare reality and human reality, between authority and power, are eclipsed by the liberal article of faith which Hauerwas summarizes as, “We have no story except the story we choose when we have no story.” It all reminds me in some way of feminist contract-theory critic, Carol Pateman, who pointed out that, in its purest form, the “right” to enter into a contract would give us the “right” to sign a contract to become a slave who no longer has any “rights.”
The myth has collapsed. The Battle of Woke Hill is a fight for a strategically worthless bit of bombed out terrain. Like the officers who concieved the operation that resulted in Hamburger Hill, we aren’t asking the right questions.
It’s a hard sell, I know. All the stumbling blocks . . . “Freedom” is unfree. rights are fictions, choices are illusions, natural is infused with supernatural, “life” is a shitty metric, science only scratches the surface, order of Being, Catholicism . . . God. And then there’s this muddled writer — calling people fools and loons and mountebanks in one breath and children of God the next.
Make up you mind, dude! Maybe you’re the fool.
Man, I’m just taking notes along the trail, every turn a new vista.
Beyond the mountain, is a mountain.
— Haitian proverb
I’ll admit — again, as I did in the beginning — the more I find, the more I discover how little I know. I picked up Del Noce, climbed up, and there before me were more mountains: Blondel, Berdyaev, Guénon, de Maistre, Pasteureau, Péguy, Rahner (again), Voegelin, and Weil (again). I’ll be ninety before I finish if I live that long.
As to my name-calling. When I work, I talk to myself. My army-speak and army-thought are things I can’t seem to shed; they were baked in when my clay was being fired. When I screw things up while I work, passers-by (or my long-suffering wife) will hear me blurt out, “You stupid motherfucker!”
That would be me. Talking to me. The army taught me this harshness, and the best I can do now is flip that verbal aggression onto myself. It would be totally fair to say that the harshest of my criticisms (in this rambling rant) are directed at those who remind me most of the earlier me, like an ex-smoker who’s become an insufferable scold to those still smoking. Macho army prick. Non-profit “organizer.” Communist. Writer. Presumptuous, error-prone baby Christian (still working through that one).
Deye mon, gen mon. Beyond the mountain . . .
I wasted an immeasurable amount of time in my leftist days trying to police and correct and preserve the meanings of language. There are vestiges of that execrable practice even in my more recent books. I’d not read Wittgenstein’s simple and clarifying assertion: the meaning of language is in the user’s intent. Specks and beams. First stones. And as we noted at the very beginning, even formal language is transmogrified both as language and as ideas. Like a stupid person, including me, this is a real thing, and fighting to deny its existence is like shoveling the beach sand back in the water.
I had a lot of missteps and rabbit holes.
Del Noce was keen on Simone Weil, with whom I identify as much as I do Didymus, even if I can’t claim her extremity of commitment. I learn the way that she did, by diving all the way to the bottom of things, even misguided things. I punch above my weight, and I lead with my face. As a communist, I dove all the way down. Some things I did I can’t even relate here because the statute of limitations never expires. I worked it out, mind and muscles, though, until I hit the impasses — through the Army, through Marxism, black nationalism, feminism . . . through Christian conversion . . . and even since then, I’ve been constantly hitting these little impasses, whereupon I’m forced, in the face of my own squalling resistance, to shed another skin. These casting-asides are, at least, not out of misrepresentation but out of my deep familiarity with them. A few years back, one of my old comrades commented that I was on Goff Version 7.2. idk
There’s a constant temptation, for most of us, I expect, to defend and justify our past positions and actions. I’ve felt it, of course. That’s what it is, though, the temptation of pride.
And there’s the tempation to claim overcoming that temptation by my own o-so-virtuous effort. That, too, is self-deception. I’m not the bell ringer; I’m the bell. It wasn’t me taking me through all those conversions. There’s comfort in that acceptance, but more importantly, there’s truth.
Take all of it as you will, and peace be with you.
My eschatological expectation is that we’ll be restored, all of us from best to worst, as carefree children — the chaff of our fallen state stripped from each of us and thrown into a holy fire. Even the killers, the bullies, the charlatans, and the fools . . . all of us. Restored to a childlike trust and innocence and a child’s capacity for love and joy.
That’s a future to look forward to.
And he will wipe away every tear, and no longer will there be death, no longer will there be sorrow or lamentation or pain, for the first things have passed away. And the one who sat upon the throne said, “Look, I make all things new.”
— Revelation 21:4–5