Thursday, September 22, 2016
The Despair Election: Michael Hanby on our Exhausted Options
First, go read philosopher Michael Hanby’s brilliant remarks on the widespread sense among people great and small that our political order (the liberalism ushered in by the Enlightenment) is “exhausted” and somehow can’t respond to the crisis we’re in.
Then consider my following comments on how left and right function in our political thinking and day-to-day wrangling--or rather, how they fail to function. I see this dichotomy of left vs. right as one of the subsidiary blinders making our liberal horizon much more difficult to see past.
How might we overcome this impasse and begin to forge a more workable politics of hope?
Reply to Hanby:
One of our problems, along with the conceptual horizons imposed by liberalism, is the obsolete language of “left” and “right” that we continue to apply when weighing our options. This too is part of why we can’t construct a politics of hope, and in my reading this outworn dichotomy helps explain the decline of the left into identity politics and of the right into free-market fundamentalism/free trade or Trumpian nationalism.
Classical liberalism presents itself not as a tentative theory of how society might be organized but as a theory of nature. It claims to lay out the forces of nature and to make these a model for social order. Thus free-market fundamentalism, letting the market function “as nature intended”. It’s an absurd position when applied dogmatically, and no more “natural” than other economic arrangements humans might develop.
The only truly rock solid aspect of classical liberalism in my mind is its theory of individual dignity, the permanent and nonnegotiable value of each individual in essence and before the law. The left has taken this and run with it and turned it into identity politics, which has morphed into a virtual divination of individual desire and self-definition. This is of course something quite different from the classical liberal understanding of the nonnegotiable value of the individual. The capitalist right, on the other hand, has taken liberal individual rights and turned them into a theory of individual responsibility for one’s economic fate, which is helpful in ways, but not decisive or even fully explanatory as to why people end up where they are. Free trade enthusiasts have put a lot of people in dire economic straits, but when you listen to these enthusiasts they speak as if their economics somehow represents nature, as opposed to what such economics really is: a shallow apologetics for the practices of international corporations.
Further, as I suggest, our two camps left and right are no longer even distinctly left and right in any traditional sense. The market forces and self-marketing that lead to the fetishization of identity by the left are the same market forces championed by the capitalist right. In America today, both left and right are merely different bourgeois cults of Self. The right’s cult of Self is the old one of the self-made man, whereas the left’s, an utter betrayal of any real left politics, echoes the thrust of market forces in a different way, playing off the myriad little marketable differences between individuals or demographics. The “left” has thus morphed into just another version of the vast capitalist marketing cult that America itself has become: iPhone, myWorld, iChat, iVictim, SelfieLove, iBornThisWay, iPride, iDentity.
It should be no surprise that the inalienable dignity of the individual, that rock solid core of liberal thinking, grew directly from the Christian soil of Paul’s assertion of the equality of all--men, women, Greek, Jew, freed, slave--in Christ. (Galatians 3:28) The now internationalized Western concept of human rights is merely a universalized version of Paul’s thought, hatched in a Christian Europe by philosophes who didn’t recognize just how Christian they were.
After all the utopian dusts settle, whether the dust of Adam Smith or the dust of PC Non-Discrimination, we must see that the one thing holding us together is this recognition that the political order must respect human rights. The core issue at present, the most fundamental way of respecting human rights, is thus that we legislate in ways that reflect a realistic understanding of these rights. In short, we must wisely theorize these rights if we are to preserve them. As for the right’s free-market fundamentalism/free trade or the left’s PC progressivism, they each are proving to be pipe dreams that don’t address the economic or legal challenges in coherent ways. They each sacrifice true rights at one altar or another in the vast temple of the Market.
The obsolete language of “left” and “right” keeps us blinded to the real human challenges. It keeps us unwilling to grapple with our concrete economic and legal problems, if only because we’re too busy cheerleading either one version of the capitalist cult or the other.
I’m looking forward to Rod Dreher’s The Benedict Option (to be published in 2017) mainly as providing some answers as to how the remnant of faithful Christians in this mayhem might both hold their faith intact while perhaps simultaneously developing less utopian modes of thinking about community. For us Christians, the current political order may very well be shaping up to be something like the pagan Roman Empire was to the early church. We finally have to face that, politically speaking, we are in the world but not of it. At least as regards any hope we might have of swaying the forces that capitalism has unleashed via its largely bogus “left” and “right” branches. I do not think left and right are completely useless as political concepts, but that they are less and less helpful in America, as the two sides are coming ever more to resemble each other.
Crucially, we must give up cheering for either of our two national parties, which have grown into one Corporate Oligarchical Party. We must focus our energies elsewhere, in building more solid local communities. When or whether these communities might offer alternative political parties is a different and less pressing question.