Russia has annexed part of Crimea, has usurped America’s role as arbiter of winners and losers in the Middle East, and makes trouble in Ukraine. Putin is increasingly popular as the patron of anti-E.U. populism in Europe, and Moscow tried to influence the recent American presidential election. Once again, the Kremlin is in its old role as adversary. Which led me to read Alexander Dugin over the Christmas holiday. He’s a Russian political philosopher who, by some accounts, has Putin’s ear, though Walter Laqueur says otherwise in his recent book, Putinism: Russia and Its Future with the West.
Dugin believes that modernity was shaped by the great conflicts between liberalism, communism, and fascism. In one of his recently translated books, The Fourth Political Theory, he describes how “they fought among themselves to the death, creating, in essence, the entire dramatic and bloody political history of the Twentieth century.” In that struggle, communism, which focused on class, failed, as did fascism, an ideology based on the primacy of the nation or race. Both were defeated by liberalism, the older and enduring ideology of individual freedom. Liberalism thus became dominant in the early years of the twenty-first century. It urges the world toward a post-national, universal future, one oriented around the individual freed from the constraints of any particular tradition. Yet “having triumphed, liberalism disappears and turns into a different entity—into postliberalism.” Our dominant ideology, universal liberalism, “no longer has political dimensions, nor does it represent free choice, but instead becomes a kind of historically deterministic ‘destiny.’”
Dugin is a dangerous figure who manipulates ideas, perhaps for cynical reasons, but I find him persuasive on this point. Liberalism triumphed, and it has become obligatory. (Ryszard Legutko’s The Demon in Democracy, which I discussed last month and which Adrian Vermeule reviewed in our January issue, points out the parallels between this aura of inevitability and communism’s claims about historical necessity.) After 1989, the liberal project seemed inevitable. Some call it “neoliberalism”—free-market economics married to a cultural politics that gives priority to personal liberation, especially sexual liberation. Markets will expand through the sheer power of the laws of economics, we’re told. Technology inevitably transforms the world. Religion will wither away as traditional cultures adopt a scientific outlook. Liberated individuals are poised to assume their full humanity for the first time, claiming their rights.
Against this self-complimenting triumphalism, Dugin insists that liberalism is not a universal ideal but rather the next stage of Western imperialism—more precisely, American imperialism. This imperialism, he writes,
is based on the idea that the history and values of Western, and especially American, society are equivalent to universal laws, and artificially tries to construct a global society based on what are actually local and historically specific values—democracy, the market, parliamentarianism, capitalism, individualism, human rights, and unlimited technological development.
Globalization over the last three decades has been an expression of “Anglo-Saxon ethnocentrism, which is the purest manifestation of racist ideology.” Dugin’s urgent prose can sound like a combination of Chairman Mao and Pope Pius IX. “The battle with [liberalism], opposition to it, and refutation of its poisonous dogmas—this is the moral imperative of all honest people on the planet. At all costs, we must, argumentatively and thoroughly, again and again, repeat that truth, even when to do so seems useless, untimely, politically incorrect, and sometimes even dangerous.”
Stridency aside, some of his analysis echoes Edmund Burke and Alexis de Tocqueville, as well as important Catholic critics of modern philosophy and politics such as Etienne Gilson and the young Jacques Maritain. Or the pages of First Things, including some pieces written by its editor. Michael Hanby’s “A More Perfect Absolutism” (October 2016) explains how a technological cast of mind asserts itself as destiny. In “Technocracy Now” (August/September 2015), James Kalb mourns the way liberalism’s progressive logic rules out dissent. Many of us have been influenced by Alasdair MacIntyre’s criticisms of liberal hegemony. In After Virtue, he argues that Nietzsche’s will to power is the logical end point of the emotivist moral theory that underwrites liberalism. One can go back further still to T. S. Eliot, Richard Weaver, Allen Tate, and others, and behind them to nineteenth-century Catholic critics of liberalism, modernity, and modernism.
Dugin gives this tradition a decidedly anti-American spin. Modernization is a “totalizing imperative,” one that now takes the form of an “American Empire.” The American-led transition to a United States of the World means that “other cultures either have an American future or no future at all.” First Things has often represented American confidence and optimism (tempered, of course, by a higher loyalty to God), and so Dugin’s anti-Americanism grates.
Yet even in this he’s not entirely at odds with our project. Patrick Deneen’s “Unsustainable Liberalism” (August/September 2012) diagnoses a dangerous pathology in the American DNA, a tendency toward abstract and dominating notions of individual freedom. Michael Hanby offers similar analysis in “The Civic Project of American Christianity” (February 2015). David L. Schindler criticizes the liberal view of the human person that he sees encoded into the American project in First Things, to which Richard John Neuhaus responded with a more positive view of our national heritage, in which religious faith and a strong tradition of civic associations moderate the excesses of liberal individualism. I favor Neuhaus’s side of the argument. Yet, as a globalist ideology, liberalism leaves behind these moderating constraints. The upshot is neoliberalism, something quite different from (and perhaps antagonistic to) our liberal traditions in the United States. I make my own case against neoliberalism in this issue (“A Dissolving Age”).
Dugin retails a great deal of foolishness. He paints in broad strokes and at times offers grotesque caricatures of American-led efforts to promote liberal values. His enthusiasm for “Eurasianism” strikes me as a dangerous geopolitical fantasy. For good or ill, Russia’s fate is tied to Europe’s, as history clearly shows. Nevertheless, his diagnosis of liberal modernity has sound elements. Some parallel criticisms were made by John Paul II and Benedict XVI. Which makes me nervous. I fear some will swallow Dugin’s foolishness on the strength of his sometimes astute criticisms of the dominant and increasingly illiberal liberal ideology in the West.
To echo a famous Russian: What is to be done? Dugin agrees with the late Samuel Huntington that “civilizations” are the basic geopolitical realities, though he also insists this need not mean unending conflict. I’m not reassured by Dugin’s prose, however, for it consistently evokes conflict. If humanity is to survive, “it is necessary to get the better of the first and foremost enemy: globalization, the striving of the Atlantic Western pole to hang its unipolar hegemony on all the nations and countries on Earth.” The American-led neoliberal dominance poses “a real challenge, to which all the nations of the Earth, and Russians most of all, must give an adequate response.” And this, of course, requires the “Fourth Political Theory.”
Dugin calls for an “ideology of conservatism and conservation,” and emphasizes “the principles of vitality, roots, constants, and eternity.” Unlike the three modern political theories, the fourth will be anti-teleological. In one place, he commends political thinking based on “chaos.” Dugin’s magpie mind picks up ideas from the left as well as right. Gilles Deleuze and other po-mo litterateurs make appearances. Dugin seems attracted to postmodern nihilism as an antiliberal purgative. The most important influence on his thinking, however, seems to be Martin Heidegger.
Heidegger was an antiliberal. “Being,” or the “real,” has no standing in our age, Heidegger thought, and as a consequence we live hollow, artificial, and disenchanted lives. Unlike many other critics of modernity, Heidegger was not nostalgic for earlier eras. He believed that a deep philosophical error going all the way back to Plato—“onto-theology”—has led us to view reality as raw material available to exploit and use for our own purposes. We cannot recover Being through a revival of metaphysics or theology, for to go back simply recapitulates philosophy’s original sin. Instead, we must find our way forward by “harkening to Being” or becoming “shepherds of Being.”
What Heidegger means by all this is difficult to pin down. By my reading, he wants to juxtapose the grasping, transformative (“technological”) habit of mind we find dominant in the West, one that wishes to draw upon the resources of the moment in order to advance projects and craft a better future, with a quite different one that is open and receptive. The Heideggerian sensibility seeks to dwell rather than build, inhabit rather than transform. Like Dugin, Heidegger identified America as the archetype of the technological mentality that blinds us to Being. Just as Dugin identifies Russia as the culture ordained to resist the triumph of this mentality, in the early 1930s, Heidegger believed Nazi Germany could be a “philosophical” answer to American-led modernity. He imagined that Nazism’s conjuring of the chthonic powers of blood and soil would restore life to the West, life open to an encounter with Being. All this is a salutary reminder that philosophical penetration—which Heidegger undoubtedly possessed—is no guarantee of political wisdom.
Dugin rejects fascism as yet another strand of the modern era of ideology that he wishes to leave behind. Yet he, like Heidegger, gropes for adequate language to describe a non-metaphysical, nontheological “revelation” that can encourage a “return from that fundamental historical dead-end to which uncritical faith in progress, rationality and the gradual development of humanity drove us.” In one place he designates ethnos as “the greatest value of the Fourth Political Theory.” Public life needs to be ordered toward a deeper dwelling within “a community of language, religious belief, daily life, and the sharing of resources and goals.” Politics hallows rather than transforms.
This should not be read as narrow ethnocentrism, Dugin asserts. Instead, it provides a basis for the “freedom of Dasein”—the word Heidegger uses for the distinct human place in the world, the thereness of our existence, the condition in which Being is truly experienced rather than merely conceptualized. All of this can be obscure, of course, a common complaint among those who are not Heideggerians. But Dugin’s use of Dasein in this context captures the distinction between freedom from and freedom for. The former constitutes the ideal sought by liberal ideology. We are most human when unconstrained by any limits; utopia is autonomy understood as limitless self-determination. Freedom for, by contrast, can only take hold insofar as one is rooted in a particular culture. We need to be nourished by a particular reality in order to live in unimpeded (free) accord with Being. The liberal individual seeks to manipulate and dominate Dasein, while Dasein animates the rooted, ethnocentric man who lives the thereness of reality. Or so I take Dugin to be arguing in this sometimes gnomic (or maybe incoherent) book.
Heidegger has had the widest influence of perhaps any twentieth-century thinker. He has been especially important for those who lost their faith in Marxism, which for a few decades in the early– to mid–twentieth century served as a surrogate for theology and metaphysics. Heidegger’s criticism of “onto-theology” and the West’s metaphysical tradition helped them interpret their experience of the postwar, liberal West as an enclosed, constraining system that promises freedom but delivers spiritual poverty. Emmanuel Levinas read him closely, as did Jacques Derrida and many other important figures in postmodernism—the term itself signals an unanswered call for something new, something beyond modernity. Dugin seems attracted to Heidegger for the same reason. The great German philosopher speaks to those who feel as though the tradition-shredding ideals of liberal modernity have brought us to a dead end.
Heidegger’s influence is understandable. His criticisms of the technological mindset are powerful and convincing, and his calls for a spirit of “waiting” and “harkening” chime with a biblical view of man in relation to God, allowing post-Christians to evoke a theological sensibility without appealing to theology. But Heidegger fundamentally diverges from an orthodox Christian understanding of the human condition. He does not believe in anything above. This was and remains a major reason for his influence. Few twentieth-century intellectuals believed in transcendent truths, making Heidegger a fitting muse. He championed powers below, which was why his short-lived enthusiasm for National Socialism was not coincidental to his philosophical frame of mind. This association was rejected by every important thinker who followed him, of course. But they too turn toward shadow powers, hoping to find something that might jostle us back to life. Derrida’s différance provides a cheerful example, as does Michel Foucault’s more troubling fascination with madness, violence, and sex. A great deal of our modern aesthetic turns to transgression as our best hope for the restoration of life, a call for that which is below to rise up and restore meaning and vitality.
Dugin rejects Nazism and fascism, or so he says. I don’t doubt his sincerity. But he too seems a modern man without a sense of the transcendent. In the face of the spiritual poverty of liberal modernity, Dugin places his hopes in Dasein, which takes the form of the arresting, animating forces that arise from below: desire, instinct, ethnos, or history’s consolidated remains. He speaks of “biopower,” a Foucaultian buzzword popular among postmodern theorists. This turn to things below will not end well.
There is a better way. For a biblical thinker, deliverance comes from above. This is why early Christianity adopted and theologized the Platonic tradition. For the Platonists, as for Heidegger, we must harken to the real. But for them it was universality—the whyness of things—that shimmers with the fullness of reality, not Dasein, the thereness of our place in the world. To overcome spiritual poverty, the Platonist looks upward and seeks to ascend. Christianity differs from Platonism in one important respect. The Bible bids us look upward and pray that the divine might descend. We are transfigured by that which, though above, comes to us here below.
Dugin is right; liberal modernity has come to many dead ends. We know we are in trouble when the right of free speech becomes a right to unlimited pornography. These dead ends are to be expected, however. The fall of man ensures that all our worldly projects come to naught, defeated by a self-love that cannot even achieve its own self-destruction, which is why secular liberalism can endure even in its perversions. But Dugin is wrong about the way forward. The remedy to liberalism’s present exhaustion, now sustained by political correctness, a macabre caricature of itself, will not come from below. It is not Dasein that brings life; it is Christ.
Islam and America
The confirmation hearings for attorney general nominee Jeff Sessions probed his attitudes toward black Americans. Donald Trump’s dismissive tweets about civil rights leader and longtime congressman John Lewis provoked concerns that his administration will worsen race relations. Given our history, these are legitimate concerns. But it’s the ideologies of identity politics that are being challenged, and rightly so, not the substantive ideal of racial equality. In the current climate, however rhetorically fraught and unhappy it may be, black Americans face little risk of rollbacks of the gains of the last two generations.
Muslims in America, by contrast, are vulnerable. I’ve heard a number of people express hostility and the conviction that Muslims cannot be loyal American citizens. Anti-Shari’a laws prohibiting judges from consulting Islamic laws have been passed in several states—in spite of the fact that at present there isn’t the slightest danger of Shari’a usurping our secular legal code. Trumpian hyperbole during the campaign stoked those suspicions. Which is all the more reason to return to an important argument by Sherman Jackson, a black American Muslim who serves as King Faisal Chair of Islamic Thought and Culture at the University of Southern California.
In his 2005 book, Islam and the Blackamerican, Jackson makes a case for Muslim endorsement of the American political system and its “liberal-pluralist vision.” At first glance, this vision contradicts Islam’s view of moral truth, for it “protects the rights of gays, atheists, and witches to be gays, atheists, and witches.” Doesn’t our loyalty to God’s law mean we must resist a modern regime that isn’t just tolerant of disobedience of divine law, but affirms a positive right to sin? This is a question many of us must face as well.
Jackson makes an important distinction between liberal pluralism as a cultural ideal and as a set of political arrangements. In the present moment, the former makes diversity, inclusion, and non-judgmentalism obligatory, and thus rejects all traditional modes of life, especially religious ones, as authoritarian and intolerant. Needless to say, Islam is opposed to liberal pluralism as obligatory cultural ideal—as are orthodox Christianity and Judaism. But liberal pluralism can refer to something more modest, a political system and civic tradition that recognize the limits of law and accord room for dissent and deviance. Islam can affirm this kind of liberal pluralism, argues Jackson, and he provides evidence from Islamic sources to show that, even in circumstances where Muslims had surpassing political power, there was support for practical acceptance of pluralism and civic accommodation of “non-Muslim beliefs and behaviors that violated Islam.”
This tradition of pragmatic accommodation of non-Islamic beliefs and practices guides Jackson’s assessment of America’s constitutional regime. The Constitution was obviously written by non-Muslims. Traditional Islamic jurisprudence is aware of such circumstances and exhorts Muslims “to honor treaties and agreements brokered by non-Muslims.” Jackson applies this principle to our political compact. When a faithful Muslim participates in American society, he accepts the terms of citizenship. This acceptance is not religious, and therefore does not offend against Islam’s requirement of spiritual loyalty.
Moreover, Jackson argues that Muslims should offer enthusiastic support for our political arrangements. “According to the Constitution, the U.S. government cannot force a Muslim to renounce his or her faith; it cannot deny him or her the right to pray, fast, or perform the pilgrimage; it cannot force him or her to eat pork, shave his beard, or remove her scarf.” In fact, “The U.S. government cannot even force a Muslim (qua Muslim) to pledge allegiance to the United States!” Under the circumstances, fixing on “dogmatic minutiae, activist rhetoric, and uncritical readings of Islamic law and history” to argue that a faithful Muslim cannot affirm the American constitutional regime is worse than foolhardy.
Jackson goes on to clarify the theological legitimacy of the First Amendment’s prohibition of religious establishment. A proponent of liberal-pluralist culture makes the separation of church and state into a foundational principle that bans religion from public life. For obvious reasons, a Muslim must reject this as an antireligious dogmatism (as must any sensible Christian or Jew). But as a practical solution to the problems posed by the sociological reality of religious pluralism, a Muslim can endorse the separation of church and state as wise policy.
Taking a page out of the First Things playbook, Jackson urges Muslim Americans to “articulate the practical benefits of the rules of Islamic law in terms that gain them recognition by society at large,” something that can be done by drawing on the Islamic tradition of practical reasoning that has family resemblances to the Catholic use of natural law and Protestant analysis of “common grace.” Christians rightly enter into public life, seeking to leaven our laws with the wisdom of Scripture and church tradition, not asserting claims on the basis of church authority, but arguing for them in the give-and-take of civic discourse. Muslims should do the same, seeking to bring forward policy proposals “that are grounded in the vision and values of Islam.”
Sherman Jackson is an influential voice in the Muslim American community, and his endorsement of liberal-pluralist constitutionalism resists Islamic extremism that poses as religious integrity and helps Muslims in the United States to affirm our way of life, which their natural sympathies incline them to do. Which is why I do not regard Islam as a “problem” in the United States. The real threats come from post-Christians. It was not faithful Muslims who decided Roe v. Wade. They weren’t the ones working to suppress religious freedom in recent years. The people who formulated the HHS contraceptive mandate were not influenced by Shari’a law. On the contrary, as G. K. Chesterton observed, the vices of the modern era are Christian virtues gone mad. The greatest threat to the future of the West is the post-Christian West.
Rahner’s New Church
Karl Rahner was a peritus at the Second Vatican Council, one of the officially designated theological consultants upon whom cardinals relied to write speeches and draft the council documents. When the council opened in 1962, Vatican officials thought they could line up the gathered bishops to vote for pre-drafted documents. The first to come before the council was a schema on revelation, a crucial theme. But council fathers were indocile and they rejected it. Pope John XXIII blessed the rebellion, and things opened up in ways no one had anticipated. The essential work of the council had to be recast, and it was Rahner, working with Joseph Ratzinger, who drafted De revelatione Dei et hominis in Jesu Christo, the seed of what became Dei Verbum, the Constitution on Divine Revelation.
His work at Vatican II burnished Rahner’s reputation. An accomplished scholar, Rahner combined a revisionist sensibility with a remarkable command of the dogmatic tradition. He wrote articles in philosophical theology and served as editor of various updated editions of the authoritative compendium of doctrine, the Enchiridion Symbolorum, known as “Denzinger” after its original editor. His dense philosophical style awed his contemporaries; his exhaustive knowledge of dogmatic details intimidated cardinals; and his ability to give traditional Catholic affirmations a progressive spin made him a celebrity among theology students.
At the height of his influence he wrote The Shape of the Church to Come, published in 1972. Some of his formulations may sound familiar. The pastoral should have priority over the dogmatic. Christ asks for an internal, existential decision in the deepest recesses of our being, not assent to doctrinal propositions. The Church needs to open her doors and reach outsiders, meeting them on their own terms rather than addressing them with legalistic moralizing. In fact, the Church needs to rethink the way morality is taught. Social criticism is the true purpose of the Church’s magisterium, which must seek engagement with the modern world rather than walling off the Church from outside influences.
All this is very familiar, especially when Rahner touches on particular issues. “It is not absolutely clear where the frontiers for an open communion lie.” The Church has some catching up to do. “It is not clear that divorced people who remarry after a first, sacramental marriage can in no circumstances be admitted to the sacraments as long as they stand by the second marriage.” (Perhaps Cardinal Walter Kasper underlined that passage in his copy of The Shape of the Church to Come.) “Nor is it so clear, as people sometimes think, what are the possibilities for a Christian conscience in regard to the state’s penal laws against termination of pregnancy.”
When it comes to Christian unity, Rahner counsels a hurry-up approach that does not tarry with dogmatic questions. He envisions an end to priestly celibacy and the beginning of lay-led Christian communities in which, under certain circumstances, lay leaders can celebrate the Mass. (Rahner was always one to encase his revisionism within elaborate qualifications.) He affirms the possibility of female priests and the introduction of lay voting and other democratic structures into church governance. Throughout, the Church’s mission is cast as sociopolitical. Justice is the new salvation.
This book, laying out a program for a radical transformation of the Catholic Church, was translated into Spanish in 1974.