In this issue, David Hart commends Pope Francis as a critic of global capitalism. I’m less enthusiastic. Yes, there’s a great deal about the global economic system to criticize, but the Holy Father tends to use a rhetorical machete rather than an analytical scalpel. He bloodies topics like global warming, integral human development, and the culture of consumption. I’d prefer more careful dissection with the instruments of Catholic social doctrine.
By Hart’s reading, Laudato Si provides unobjectionable statements of self-evident fact and uncontroversial Christian principles. Perhaps, but I’m struck by an apocalyptic tone uncharacteristic of post–Vatican II magisterial teaching. As I’ve written elsewhere, Francis seems to be channeling the spirit of Pius IX, the great nineteenth-century pope who could well have spoken of modernity reeking with “the stench of . . . ‘the dung of the devil,’” a vivid image from the Church Fathers that Francis recently used to describe the spiritual consequences of making an idol of capitalism. His depictions of environmental disaster, economic exploitation, and a “throwaway” culture are dark and dire. The urgency of his denunciations agitates conservatives like me. It encourages the media to say, “Pope slams capitalism.”
A perfectly normal and necessary response has been to fix on the substance of the pope’s statements, which can usually be parsed as appropriate criticisms of greed and exploitation. He isn’t rejecting capitalism; he’s critiquing its excesses. I’ve done some of that myself. But that ignores the challenging rhetoric, which may end up being the most important aspect of this papacy. Francis is a man of bold words and striking gestures.
Catholics are not called to pretend enthusiasm for or agreement with every statement a pope makes. In the formal use of his teaching authority, however, we’re asked to be docile, which means allowing ourselves to be led to the truths he seeks to teach us.
No doubt Francis thinks climate change is a significant issue. Yet I’m increasingly convinced that he focuses on global warming because it epitomizes and dramatizes his larger intuition that we have reached a junction of sorts. In concert with his warnings about environmental degradation, he criticizes global finance, capitalism, and inequality. The rhetorical effect is to create the impression that the global system—the world as we know it—is undergoing a kind of crisis.
I don’t like the rhetoric of crisis. It is often used to manipulate people by creating a false sense of urgency. I feel that way about a lot of sky-is-falling talk on climate change. I’m made suspicious by the fact that the sorts of folks whose political views invariably involve herding ordinary people into bureaucratic schemes administered by experts warm so quickly to worst-case predictions about climate change.
But I don’t want to criticize. I want to be docile, to listen and learn as best I can. As I’ve allowed Francis to lead the way, I’ve found myself coming to the conclusion that his overall sense of the global situation may be correct. I still don’t like the heated rhetoric or agree with his particular assessments, but the Bergoglian word-bombs have jarred me out of my complacency. We face significant challenges that could very well mature into crises. Here’s my Francis-inspired reading of the signs of the times.
Capitalism Triumphant. Corporate Goliaths are reshaping local economies throughout the world. They’re also overwhelming local political cultures. In France, top Uber executives have been arrested on charges of running an illegal taxi business. The legal details are complex, but the symbolism is clear. This display of state power signals an effort by the French government to maintain its political sovereignty over the marketplace.
Uber may win this skirmish. If so, it foretells fundamental changes that are likely to reshape our basic political institutions. Since the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, human affairs in the West have been dominated by the nation-state. We seem to be entering an era in which the marketplace challenges the state’s power. If successful, it will be a withering-away of the state very different from the one predicted by Karl Marx.
The global mobility of capital has also diminished the power and significance of the labor movement. For more than one hundred years, Western political culture has been organized around labor and capital—their conflicts, their common interests, and the different strategies for harmonizing them. This seems to be ending, and with it the signal role of economic class.
We should not be deceived by efforts to raise the minimum wage. Unlike the labor movement at its height, this policy initiative poses no threat to the structures of power in our society. It reflects our general trend as a nation. For the last fifty years, we have been shifting our welfare policies away from government-run programs, repackaging them into corporate mandates. Obamacare is a case study in this approach.
Class politics has been superseded by identity politics. We don’t notice the eclipse of class in the United States, because our political culture traditionally shies away from class-based political rhetoric. But it is glaringly obvious in Great Britain. The Labour party was undone in the recent British election by a combination of Scottish nationalism, concerns about immigration, and opposition to EU integration—each a version of identity politics.
Furthermore, the political meaning of “progressive” has migrated away from class and toward identity. In all likelihood, over the last five years or so, more American money has gone to Nigeria to support gay rights than to labor organizing. The leadership of Planned Parenthood has the power to dictate Democratic party policy on any issue of concern to “women’s health.” Unions have to bargain, sometimes getting what they want, sometimes not.
All this is to be expected. Capitalism dominates postmodern life in a way that transcends the differences between left and right. We now debate how to unleash, direct, and use its power, not whether to accept its role. Places like Stanford University may be liberal hothouses, but they’re more thoroughly organized to serve capitalism than ever before. The problem is that the marketplace cannot provide us with a sense of belonging, which is a fundamental human need. Its ascendancy leaves people atomized and rootless. These feelings, in turn, motivate efforts to renew or recover (or invent) identities that promise to provide us with a place in the world.
And so we’re moving toward a crisis, at least in some places. The more thoroughly global capitalism triumphs, the more intense identity politics becomes. This is especially true where global capitalism sweeps through traditional societies, remaking them in a single generation. The ache to belong is felt with an acute pain, often motivating intense efforts to recover or restore social forms that capitalism dissolves. Populism in Europe and America functions in this way. Islamism in the Middle East plays the same role.
The Technocratic Internationale. We are political animals. This aspect of our nature is more powerful than our quest for wealth, which is why we’ll never embrace a purely economic basis for society. Global capitalism drives tremendous political changes, but it cannot usher in an end of politics. The free-market dream of frictionless cooperation based on self-interest is just that: a dream, one as fanciful as Marx’s. As the modern, democratic nation-state is eroded by global capitalism, we instinctively seek alternative ways to shape a political order. Today, a web of international organizations, agencies, NGOs, and mega-philanthropies is being spun. It’s a global, technocratic political order, not a nation-based, democratic one.
The European Union exemplifies this trend. Given demographic stagnation and even decline, it’s imperative for European countries to maximize the wealth-creating potential of their economies. Economic integration reduces friction in the marketplace, leading to faster growth. European leaders consider faster growth to be worth sacrificing a degree of national sovereignty to attain. Economic union, however, must be overseen by political authorities. Thus a transnational form of government develops.
Sometimes this happens through official treaties. The Schengen Agreement (1985) abolished border controls, a significant abdication of sovereignty that took more than a decade to implement fully. The Maastricht Treaty (1992) established a single currency, another dramatic transfer of sovereignty from nation-states to supranational authorities. The development of the EU as a governing power has also been happening in ad hoc ways. After the 2008 financial crisis, high-level decisions transformed the European Central Bank into an instrument of unified European monetary policy.
The European Union is not the only place of supranational integration and coordination. Sometimes the agents of political globalization aim for purely technical objectives, not political ones. The Gates Foundation exemplifies this technocratic trend. In many countries, it has more influence over public health policy than local leaders do. There are other international actors with more or less political self-consciousness. In a globalized debt market, the International Monetary Fund is able to leverage market forces to shape economic policies in many sovereign nations. The International Criminal Court in the Hague claims global jurisdiction.
As Americans, we often ignore this process. That’s because powerful nations like the United State can control, manipulate, and defy the emerging global network. Moreover, the old Westphalian system still operates, and will as long as sovereign nations field armies. But there can be no doubt that the political culture of the West is being globalized and thus altered and transformed.
One engine driving these changes is cultural. An increasingly globalized elite is now in charge. Yale, Harvard, and other top universities are transforming themselves from American institutions into global ones. Their mission is to train the people who are going to run the world. They are explicit about this.
In traditional political systems, elites justify their supereminence by demonstrating their loyalty to a common culture. In the modern era, that loyalty is called patriotism. The globalizing elite, by contrast, is post-patriotic. They justify their supereminence by claiming a special technical or managerial competence. We see this in our political culture today. Populism is a modern political phenomenon. It emerges during periods when voters feel vulnerable and need to be reassured that their identities will be supported, not that their interests will be served. Renegades like Donald Trump appeal to this need. Meanwhile, mainstream politicians sell themselves as policy experts.
The global system feels little in the way of populist pressure. Power is allocated in informal ways, not by elections. Its goals and priorities are shaped in Davos-like settings by self-appointed problem-solvers. This reinforces the general shift of public culture toward a technocracy that promises to master global capitalism, limiting its excesses and channeling its dynamism toward the common good. I’m skeptical. I don’t look forward to the post-national world overseen by globalized institutions. Such a future won’t be democratic. It will be a paternalistic empire, at best.
Loss of Contemplation. Modern science in its theoretical mode is winding down as universities orient themselves toward technology. Patents are more precious than Nobel Prizes. Closely related is the trend toward fusing science with business. It, too, is being swallowed by the marketplace. Exhibit A: the medical-industrial complex.
Today’s science is Big Science, and it requires Big Money. Graduate students are now taught how to write grants, often in their first year of study. To an extent unimaginable to an earlier generation of scientists, the rising generation of academic experts sees little or no tension between truth-seeking and money-making. Scientists work to secure lucrative patents—often encouraged by their universities, which claim a healthy chunk of profits. Venture capital plays a growing role. The line between academic science and industry is blurring. Science is no longer a vocation. It’s a career.
During the modern era, science served as the touchstone for intellectual rigor, and often for good reason. Science was where truth was sought for its own sake. Newton did not devise his theory of gravity in order to launch rockets. His ambition was to penetrate more deeply into the mystery of the heavens above. To a large degree, the same guiding motive—to know things more deeply—characterized science until fairly recently. Today, however, science is increasingly a business, and its ambitions are technological.
Science faces ideological temptations, as well. Contrary to David Hart’s suggestion, many of us are climate science skeptics not because we’re carrying water for Exxon stockholders, but because we don’t trust an intellectual culture of scientists-as-activists. That distrust has been vindicated by revelations of dodgy uses of data and collusion to prevent the publication of studies challenging the climate science consensus.
If we’re justly skeptical of the pronouncements of climate scientists, we have a positive duty to doubt most of the “results” of social science. An intelligent eighteen-year-old in a sociology class who isn’t a paid-up progressive quickly recognizes the ideological character of a great deal of social science.
Pope Benedict often spoke of our weakened culture of reason in the West. His signature phrase, “the dictatorship of relativism,” points to one of the causes. However, money-making’s invasion of science and the closely related transformation of inquiry into technological innovation have also done much to undermine reason’s higher vocation, that of contemplation. We have politicized universities for the same reason. Yes, social Darwinism reflected an earlier ideology that colonized science, and the desire to get rich has always motivated human beings. But older generations of scientists were often reliable guardians of reason. This is less and less the case. Scientists too often chase grant money or launch start-ups, and the ideologues have too free a rein.
Naked Power. Gianni Vattimo is an Italian prophet of postmodernity. He describes our era as one of “weakening.” The West long felt itself governed by strong truths—theological truths about God and the human person. These were secularized during the modern era, but they remained strong: Reason, Progress, History. As Vattimo correctly notes, we’re now critical and skeptical of strong truths. Even the secular convictions of modernity have weakened. Vattimo welcomes this weakening, for in his view, it allows for greater freedom.
Over the last two generations, the West has identified human rights as the firm foundation for a just society. Without a basis in strong truths about the human person, however, human rights easily become plastic, malleable masks for power. To a great degree, we now affirm this weakening, even of human rights. Educators today teach schoolchildren that rights are socially defined, not divinely authorized or in some way grounded in our nature.
Hence our paradoxical public culture. On the one hand, we insist upon rights. They are the only moral truths we have left. We need rights, especially fundamental human rights, to put moral limits on power. On the other hand, we see strong truths as threats to our freedom, and so the basis for our language of rights gets weaker and weaker. We rise to heights of moral indignation when human rights are violated—and teach our children that all rights are socially defined.
This weakening reduces the limits on what political power can decide. The West has jettisoned a transcendent truth above human affairs. It is now in the process of rejecting the foundation of nature below, as the hysteria over transgenderism indicates so clearly. Our politics are now for the sake of . . . politics. Politics is now limited, normed, and governed by . . . politics. Marriage has no intrinsic meaning. It can be defined by those in power.
We preach this metaphysical poverty as liberation. The West imposes the same poverty on the rest of the world with missionary zeal. It is a gospel of power. Society defines rights—and “society” really means the powerful, those able to dominate and control the rights-defining process. The same metaphysical poverty characterizes the technocratic regime emerging to fill the vacuum created by global capitalism. It justifies itself as a utility-maximizing project, a metaphysically impoverished vision of the common good that provides little basis on which to critique, limit, or challenge its claim to power. Thus our postmodern condition: We are stripped down to our animal nakedness while we systematically deny we’re animals with an actual nature.
These observations are impressionistic. They’re overstated, perhaps, even hyperbolic. I console myself that these qualities are fitting, given that my reflections above are inspired by Francis.
The Nazi Taboo
These days a college fraternity could throw a Soviet-themed party and nobody would notice. Imagine the red-starred flags draped from the frat house windows and party décor that features a heroic statue of Stalin. The brothers are all dressed in Red Army uniforms, and after much drinking there’s a sloppy singing of the Internationale. The dean’s office might sniff around to make sure there are no incidents of sexual assault. But who would object to a Soviet-themed evening? Boys will be boys.
Imagine, now, the same event in a Nazi key. It would provoke a national outcry, complete with editorials in the New York Times that would wonder about the future of America. The simple appearance of a Nazi flag is enough to draw censure in any context. A frat boy dressed in an S.S. uniform singing Deutschland Über Alles? Even boorish undergraduates with no historical knowledge have absorbed the deep taboo against all things Nazi.
The different reactions to the red star and swastika reflect a peculiar social fact about the postmodern West. Stalin does not horrify us. Mao seems to many an almost charming, grandfatherly figure. Che Guevara is positively chic. Hitler, by contrast, remains the epitome of evil.
Why this difference? It’s not a matter of the scale of killing, or the brutal, premeditated nature of the evils perpetrated. Some estimate that the victims of communism number nearly 100 million. During Stalin’s great purge in the late 1930s, more than half a million people were killed with gunshots to the backs of their heads. In 1940, the Red Army massacred 20,000 Polish officers and civilian leaders in the Katyn Forest, a calculated effort to decapitate Polish society. The killings were ordered by the highest officials of the Soviet Union. And of course there’s the Cultural Revolution in China. It was perhaps the most brutal episode of the twentieth century.
But body counts don’t count. We shrug off communist-inspired depravities and recoil from Nazi ones because of their differences as ideologies, not because of the sum of their crimes. Communism was a project that justified itself by appealing to higher ideals. Nazism, by contrast, reached downward. It mined the power of the primitive: blood and soil. Today, we fear the latter far more than the former.
Communism was part of the Enlightenment project. It sought to perfect man by the rigorous application of reason, in this case by appealing to an entirely specious “science” of historical materialism. We now reject this “science” as false, but for all its grotesque and cruel ideological failings, most modern men think communism was right to seek to be scientific. To be modern is to affirm communism’s basic impulse: Reason should govern human affairs.
Our technocratic society is less ambitious today. We don’t think of ourselves as ideological. Our age just wants to manage the business cycle with monetary policy, regulate efficiently, institute a multicultural ideology that harmonizes potentially antagonistic groups, and provide effective therapy for personal problems. But like communism, our more modest contemporary technocracy trusts in reason. We believe we can use science—economic science, social science, brain science—to make life, if not perfect, at least better.
We’re so confident in our more modest uses of reason—both in the modesty and the reasonableness—that we don’t fear communism. Our technocratic uses of reason seem far more plausible to most educated people today than Marxism’s grand theories. As a consequence, communism, at least in the Marxist form it took in the twentieth century, has no living future in the West.
This is not to say that the grand theory of Marxism has no appeal. Technocratic reason is weak, not strong. It’s managerial, not theoretical, and therefore it can’t raise us up and out of our present historical moment. For this reason, postmodern culture isn’t self-critical in a significant way. Identity politics and lots of heavy breathing about “power relations” can obscure this fact. But most intelligent people are aware of how constricted our political and social imaginations have become. It’s not surprising, therefore, that some, perhaps many, have nostalgia, if not for communist societies, at least for the critical leverage communist theories of economics, society, and human identity once provided.
So when it comes to symbols and paraphernalia of the communist past, the present-day West is almost always unconcerned, or even amused and sometimes warm-hearted, as in the case of Che, a popular image of youth and idealism. Communism is theory gone mad, yes, but its madness stays in the family, as it were, as a madness of reason. And we reassure ourselves it’s a madness that no longer afflicts us. Recently, Bolivian President Evo Morales gave Pope Francis a crucifix in the shape of a hammer and sickle. A kerfuffle ensued, but nobody took it terribly seriously, and rightly so.
Nazism is very different. If a leader were to present to the pope a crucifix in the shape of a swastika, world outcry would ensue. This taboo response suggests that the postmodern West is half-aware that, unlike communism, Nazism remains a living danger. The dark powers below are alive, always ready to burst into the open.
The historian John Lukacs has argued that Nazism, not communism, was the great and paradigmatic movement of the twentieth century. Hitler was able to transform almost overnight a demoralized nation of 70 million into a world-dominating power. It tapped into something so powerful that it took the gathered might of America, Great Britain, and the Soviet Union to defeat it.
Unlike communism, which came to be led by cynical men who betrayed its central tenets, Nazism was capable of inspiring heartfelt loyalty. George Orwell loathed National Socialism, but he could not write a parody of it as he did of communism in Animal Farm. Unlike ideals of equality and the dictatorship of the workers, the Nazi belief in power and the right of the strong to dominate the weak can be implemented without contradiction.
Modernity makes Nazism a real possibility for us. We champion reason, but reason turns out to be more destructive than creative. It’s able to refute more easily than prove, to critique more readily than construct. As a result, modernity has tended to tear down the old order, but provides little in the way of replacement. The upshot is a vacuum. Nazism promised to fill it by conjuring deep passions and emotions. It appealed to German nationalism, as many have observed. But the movement also tapped into primal instincts. Blood and sacrifice were recurring themes, along with affirmation of the purity of nature, which needs to be guarded, and the vitality of life, which needs to be affirmed against the enervating, “cosmopolitan” powers of modernity. Nazism may have required discipline, but it was the opposite of Puritanism. It celebrated both violence and eroticism, direct links to primordial human instincts.
Nazism is taboo, while communism is a non-threatening part of our past. This tells us that today we’re more vulnerable to upsurges in primitive urges than to the recrudescence of world historical fantasies. In our technocratic age, truth becomes weak. Public life is reduced to utility functions. We feel a need for something strong. That makes the dark genius of Nazism alluring. It promises renewal by reaching downward, drawing upon our primal, animal powers.
The swastika is forbidden because it’s a real possibility.
R. R. Reno is editor of First Things.
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