In spirit and in truth

El Mono Liso:

On a sense of place

Originally posted on Communiques of the Suburban Liberation Front:

A secular sermon

Our fathers worshiped in this mountain, and you people say that in Jerusalem is the place where men ought to worship.” Jesus said to her, “Woman, believe Me, an hour is coming when neither in this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father.

This passage in the Gospel seems to me to speak against idolatry, but also against empire. For the Temple in Jerusalem was not just a place of worship in the modern sense, but a symbol of wealth and power. Some Biblical scholars characterize Jesus’ attacks on the Temple as sort of peaceful assault on the established order, trying to attack the center from the periphery of the wilderness; trying to lay bare its exploitative nature. As Biblical tropes go, God is found outside the city, in the wilderness. Jesus is crucified outside its walls. To encounter God, as the Chosen People did…

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Raising children in the end times

El Mono Liso:

My latest.

Originally posted on Communiques of the Suburban Liberation Front:

As a parent of young children, I was eager to read and review Layla AbdelRahim’s book, Wild Children – Domesticated Dreams: Civilization and the Birth of Education. However, as in all such reviews that I attempt to write, I will not do justice to the text. To get the unpleasantries out of the way first, I found the book itself somewhat disjointed, and its back-and-forth between personal field notes and summaries of academic texts is very awkward in my view. It is as if the book can’t decide whether it is a research paper or a personal memoir. Nevertheless, there are themes that I find thought-provoking and thus worthy of comment. In particular, I think the author’s point concerning how civilization doesn’t trust children is particularly poignant and, to be frank, guilt-inducing for the conventional parent. In a world where the relationship between things governs the relationship between people…

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Massa damnata

On Blaise Pascal

The phenomenon of Jansenism has interested me on and off for about ten years now. There are many reasons for this. The most important of these is that I love a good loser. In contemporary Catholic / Christian thought, Jansenism is the big loser: its rigorism, antiquarianism, and apocalyptic opposition to the decadence of contemporary life are in diametrical opposition to modern thought as currently conceived. Even people who are accused of being too strict in terms of morality or religious practice are hardly Jansenists in the sense that Jansenists were. Our ideas of what these things are have moved so far towards the liberal side of the spectrum that even our conservatism is quite libertine when taken in context. More than likely, we are the first to absolve ourselves of any crimes or culpability for anything. What I have done has always been rational, what I want is always sensible, my moral compass is always right, etc.

The one thing you cannot question in contemporary discourse is: what I want. What I want is always legitimate, my desire is always infallible. My vision of the good and happy life is natural, it must be defended at all costs, and imposed on those poor misguided souls who disagree with it. That I think is part of the problem with our civilization as it exists. In order for things to function well, we must assume that the natural order of things tends towards justice and cooperation. Things are never that bad, never that hopeless, and contain a rational kernel that will lead us to a better and brighter tomorrow. This is just as much the psychological center of Marxism as it is Ronald Reagan’s “Morning in America” pastoral optimism. Perish the thought that things were never meant to work in the first place.
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Communism is the Truth that Fulfills All Truths: Why Christians and Atheists (& Muslims, Hindus, Etc) Will Someday Reach the Same Destination

from Plato onwards, Communism is the only political Idea worthy of a philosopher. – Alain Badiou

Reading this line from Badiou a few years ago pushed me over a hesitation to embrace the word “communism” in a full-throated sense. I wrote an essay not long after this point on Plato’s Republic where I explored how Plato connected the ability of his ideal city’s guardians to achieve justice to their having forsaken private property. In fact, re-reading Book V last night only confirmed for me what Badiou is saying, that Communism is the fulfillment of political rationality. If Plato’s philosophy of ideal justice requires communism in this sense, I hold that a profound truth has escaped the notice of many in our time, including advocates of Marxism. That truth is that communism does not belong to Marx and his successors, but to humanity as a whole.

Marxists often want to define just how communism will be brought into being. They have a theory of the proletariat revolution led by a Communist Party. The leadership of the Communist Party is composed of the advanced activists and theorists who correctly understand the necessary path to take towards Communism. Of course, history is littered with the failures of Communist governments. It isn’t adequate to slap a label on your philosophy and call it Communism. Communism does not belong to Marxists, but to humanity.

If communism is as old as Greek philosophy – actually older – then is it so surprising that it also makes an appearance in the most popular world religion, Christianity? The gospels are only comprehensible as a communist event with a vision of a classless society at their core. The Book of Acts presents the “Jerusalem Commune” where the followers of Jesus set up a system of wealth redistribution among the members of their new movement.

I am not arguing that Communists should become Christians, by no means. I am contending that Communists, whether atheist or Christian, have a common heritage that is older than Karl Marx. I am contending that Communism’s central axiom, “from each according to ability, from each according to need” is rooted in universal human relationships. Every healthy nuclear family operates as a commune. In “primitive communism” sharing was simple and direct exchange. It is the ruling classes throughout human history who have rejected this basic relational ethos and imposed class domination on the majority of all societies.

The rebirth of Communism in our times will not fall into the classic divides of the left of Marxist vs. Anarchist vs. Religious communists. In our post-secular world, communism is only possible with an inclusive alliance of Atheists, Christians, Muslims, and others.

Or, communism may fail to be achieved. Humanity may be forever trapped in an undesirable system of class domination. Many science fiction dystopias paint such a picture. I am an optimist, but I am not a fatalist. Humanity could fail to fulfill its own potential. That will be tragic, indeed. But, even such a failure does not prove that Communism was not the true fulfillment of humanity’s potential.

Killing the Capitalist God: Gospel Communism and the Death of God

It has long seemed quite strange to me that so many atheists find Nietzsche’s assertion of the death of God attractive. God doesn’t exist at all for atheists, his “death” can only be at most the death of the theism of some part of humanity.  Perhaps a historical point can be made about the passing of a specific era of religiosity in Europe at the time of Nietzsche.

Beginning in the 60s, Nietzsche’s ideas got re-deployed by theologians, no less, or rather, atheologians. Thomas J. J. Altizer declared the “Gospel of Christian Atheism” which asserted the historical death of God in the event of the incarnation and crucifixion of Jesus. Today, Slavoj Žižek has produced his own Lacanian spin on this mostly forgotten theological fad.

On the contrary, God (as theism) never died for a substantial portion of modern society. God was redesigned, certainly, by the course of Western history. God today has become the ultimate capitalist, a Heavenly Boss who punishes the lazy and hedonists with poverty and war. Working-class Christians in the US have been lavishly courted by the ruling class into a New Religious Right with showers of campaign donations promising to end the sinfulness of society by reactionary economic discipline.

 As a Pentecostal preacher’s kid, I somehow got deformed and alienated against the New Right. Jesus was always to me a hippie, a communist, a peacenik, and a rock star. I held the orthodox doctrines as long as I could, up to my mid-30s. I can still wax eloquent about the wonders of Trinitarian mysticism and the infinite glories of being resurrected in the New Jerusalem. While still a believer I argued obsessively that Jesus was a revolutionary, a radical who prophesied the destruction of the ruling class and the victory of perfect love over the earth. And, I could show how such a theology came straight out of the biblical texts themselves. Despite their putative belief in inerrancy, most Christians today don’t follow the teachings of Jesus on wealth, but rather those of John Calvin.

One of the most puzzling mysteries of the modern world is how followers of Jesus can be such willing propagandists for the inhuman system of capitalism and tyranny under which we slave daily. Why aren’t there Christian Socialist Clubs in every church? Jesus denounced wealth and possessions in no uncertain terms. How can anyone read the gospels with an open eye and not understand that the one they call Christ and Savior is the enemy of the system of commodity production and wage labor?

If we turn from the deformed condition of Christianity to the condition of “Actually Existing Socialists” we don’t find a pretty picture there either. Although most potential proletarians in our society today are Christians, often fervently so, card-carrying socialists are nearly all deeply hostile to Christianity. Today’s socialists take the New Atheists as their models for religious criticism, not the more nuanced approach taken by Karl Marx and Rosa Luxemburg. My favorite quote from Rosa’s classic Socialism and the Churches reads:

In conformity with the material position of the men belonging to this [Roman proletarian] class, the first Christians put forward the demand for property in common – communism. What could be more natural? The people lacked means of subsistence and were dying of poverty. A religion which defended the people demanded that the rich should share with the poor the riches which ought to belong to all and not to a handful of privileged people; a religion which preached the equality of all men would have great success.

My experience trying to discuss Christian Communism with left-wing atheists has been quite dispiriting over the years. The business class holds massive fund-raisers courting preachers and laypersons to their causes, but except for the largely defunct religious socialism commissions of DSA and the SPUSA, there is no effort to appeal to Christians on the basis of their most fervent passion, following Jesus.

Some have accused me of cynicism when I propose a religious left as a necessary element of a revitalized left politics in the US. Since I personally no longer hold an orthodox theology, they assume that I want socialists to lie to Christians when we invite them eagerly into our ranks. Not at all, what I want Socialists and Communists and Anarchists to do is listen respectfully to the faith of these working-class followers of Jesus. Ask them why they don’t take their own gospel teachings about poverty literally.

There is no hope of ever overthrowing capitalism in the US unless we kill the Capitalist God who reigns in American Christianity. We can only kill that satanic inversion of the Father of Jesus if the Christians do that from their own convictions. I am proposing a mutual collaboration between the brilliant atheists in the socialist movement with the disheartened Christians who are daily coming to question the heresy of the Christian Right. We need each other.

We need each other not because Christians are potentially a massive pool of allies and activists, though they are indeed such. They are necessary for the revitalization of Communism as the universal vision of world emancipation. Every religion has its earthly paradise that it promises the faithful. These paradisiacal visions are the seedbed for the utopian mindset from which radical politics sprung. Communism comes from humanity’s total history, not from the mind of one philosopher named Karl in the mid-1800s! Reclaiming the communist teachings of Jesus and his early followers means reclaiming an essential part of communism’s historical development.

Communism’s axiom, from each according to ability, to each according to need is the economic corollary to the Golden Rule, do unto others what you would have them do unto you. Although many leftists like to praise the achievements of modernity and seem to forget all the blood, sweat, and toil of humanity before the onset of capitalism, in fact, communism springs quite logically from the nature of humanity and our highest values. Although Karl Marx did banish Hermann Kriege’s “Communism of Love” from his organization, it seems in the aftermath of Stalinism that Communism needs to restore its reputation as humanizing vision with affirmative principles of human mutuality. Who better to be a symbol of such a kinder, gentler communism than the Good Shepherd, Jesus of Nazareth?

The anti-primitive

An apology to gutter-punks, or: How I learned to stop worrying and love anarcho-primitivism

I’ve been intending to write this essay for months, but things always got in the way. And now that I have elected to use some time to write it, I am somewhat at a loss. So to begin, I thought I will cite a recent review in the New Yorker of a history of the demise of the passenger pigeon.


In their wake, passenger pigeons left behind denuded fields and ravaged woods; descriptions conjure up those First World War photographs of amputated trees in no man’s land. “They would roost in one place until they broke all the limbs off the trees,” one old-timer recalled, “then they would move to Joining timber & treat it likewise, then fire would break out in the old Roost and Destroy the remainder of the timber.” Their droppings, which coated branches and lay a foot thick on the ground, like snow, proved toxic to the understory and fatal to the trees…If anything, the passenger pigeon is a bracing corrective to notions of a natural world detached from its fecund terrors. The bird’s propensity for eating everything and taking over earth and sky makes it seem, frankly, a little like us. As Greenberg notes, “a widely held view is that this species could not sustain itself without a giant population,” so that decline itself became a cause of further decline. In other words, passenger pigeons lived by collaboration on a giant scale, and may have died by it. Yet what Greenberg sees is not the clash of two irreconcilable species with gargantuan needs but a story of victimizers and victims.

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Puer natus est nobis

One of the iron laws that I have found out concerning being a parent is that children love the outdoors. Well, at least mine do. Any parent in an intemperate climate where it can get too hot or too cold knows well how much more difficult the day goes when the children are unable to be outside. “Cabin fever” often results in children bouncing off the walls, gratuitously antagonizing each other, and trying the parents’ wits in a seemingly endless test of wills. And they sleep badly. No matter how difficult it might be, one almost inevitably has to prepare the children to go outside, if only for a little while. Once outdoors, they tend to calm down, or unleash pent up energies in far more constructive ways.

I am rather sure that this very concrete reality in my current life has influenced the trajectory of the little intellectual life that I am now allotted. To be direct, my tendency to take the “anti-civ” critique more seriously than the average person may be due to my parenting of very young children. A lot of it has to do with guilt. I live a very, very white-bread middle class life in a U.S. suburb. On the other hand, I am beginning to realize that most of my inherent parental sense when it comes to discipline has to do with curbing my children’s wants and needs in order to conform to a society in which I believe very little. Sit still, comb your hair, don’t scream, don’t make a mess, don’t hit your sister… it is just one continuous monitoring against things that children naturally do in order to make them do the opposite.
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All Roads Lead to Communism, or None Do: Theses on Marxism & Intersectionality

(The following is my response to the “Exiting the Vampire Castle” controversy on The North Star webzine about tensions between Marxism, intersectionality, and left politics.)

1) Communism is the goal of ending human domination, exploitation, oppression, and repression in a world of abundance, justice, and harmony among all living beings. Therefore, the practical subject for revolutionary analyses are the social systems that perpetuate and extend systemic suffering for living beings. It is proposed based on careful study of social science and left-wing political theory that the basic categories of human social systems are eightfold:

Economics

Politics

Gender

Race/Culture

Ecology

Martial Systems (institutional use of coercion)

Sexuality

Religion/Irreligion

2) No single one of the above social systems is independent or dominant over all others.

3) Revolutionary analysis identifies institutional structures that perpetuate systemic suffering and propose political collective mobilizations to overturn these structures and replace them with emancipatory new systems and institutions.

4) Revolutionary analysis considers the objective collective systems to be the primary focus of activist mobilization and engagement. It is also engaged with collective cultural aspects of these institutional systems. It considers interpersonal and personal subjective behaviors and attitudes of subordinate importance, though not entirely unimportant.

5) By identifying eight interdependent social systems, an adequate revolutionary analysis cannot advance communist goals by minimizing the objective importance of any of the social systems. A “revolutionary” change in one or a few aspects of these social systems without attempting broad changes in all of them will leave the new institutions vulnerable to counter-revolutionary mobilization from one of the unrevolutionized social systems.

For example, the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 did indeed radically change the political, religious, and economic character of Russia, but it at best merely reformed systems of cultural, gender, martial, ecological, and ethnic domination and oppression, which formed the basis for the counter-revolutions against communism from within Russia and the Soviet Union.

6) There are important aspects of Marxism, feminism, anti-racism, radical democracy, pacifism, sex radicalism, progressive religion/irreligion, and environmentalism that must be applied to revolutionary analysis to better equip radicals to overturn the systems that dominate our world. Posing irreconcilable oppositions between feminism and Marxism or any of these important approaches to social criticism is to betray the revolutionary movement from the very start.

Pseudo-religious notes on poverty and work

Given that I am no longer taken to accepting religious explanations for anything, I have wondered sometimes why I give priority in my thought to the poor, the uneducated, the outcast, and the downtrodden. After all, if one is going to be a “true materialist”, would it not be better to give precedence to those who are thriving, materially speaking? This would be a good indication why being a materialist isn’t necessarily a good thing. But then you have to realize that you are dealing with a loaded term. To explain this better, perhaps it is better to go with an analogy.

Say you are tricked into going on a blind date. The other person you meet ends up being attractive, charming, a good conversationalist, and so on. However, there are little ticks, little hints in the conversation that lead you into thinking that there is more to this person than the façade is letting on. Perhaps you dig into the person’s history some more, maybe only through just “googling” that person’s name. What if the person ends up being a convicted rapist? What if the person ends up being abusive, a sociopath, or otherwise dysfunctional? What if you drive by that person’s house and you realize that she or he is a hoarder, or is already married, and so on and so forth? In other words, in ordinary life, we are taught not to let façades fool us. Just because a person might put their best foot forward in a controlled situation, this does not entail that this is all that there is to know about that person. Or one could even say that one does not know the truth concerning that person.
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Pathological Social Evolution: Towards a Critical Integrative Theory? // A Flashback Reblog

[Note: This speculative essay was originally posted on my first "Leftist Quaker" blog in Nov. 2009. I'd approach the topic differently today, but recent discussions I've had regarding the relevance of Ken Wilber made the hypotheses I proposed here resurface.]

Ken Wilber has repeatedly said that most of the world is at the level of Nazis in their development, most notably in his recent book, Integral Spirituality. This statement has troubling prejudices within it, as it seems to not ask why this might be so. Even further, is it even really true?

I will propose here that the under-used concept of “pathology” proposed in Wilber’s Integral Psychology has the potential to re-shape and advance a critical understanding of social evolution. I am calling this project of rethinking, “Critical Integrative Theory.” It is integrative, rather than integral, as that term is becoming a trademark of the Wilberian movement, and I wish to cast a wider net. It is called ‘critical’ after the Frankfurt School’s tradition of “critical theory,” of whom Jurgen Habermas is one of the leading thinkers.

Critical Theory is a “social theory oriented toward critiquing and changing society as a whole, in contrast to traditional theory oriented only to understanding or explaining it.” I know that Wilber does wish to change and critique society, but in these blogs I will pursue a line of social analysis that Wilber seems to neglect, though I do not charge him with intentional neglect.

Frankfurt School critical theory began as an attempt to address the political crises of pre-war Europe. Frankfurt school theorists were troubled by the implications of burgeoning fascism for Marxist (and Liberal) theories of social change and revolution. Many Marxists expected that the working masses in Europe would align themselves with Russia against German and Italian Fascism and overthrow those regimes. However, in both nations the working masses substantially supported Fascism. It is clear that working-class fascism was utterly against the objective interests of the working masses, and yet, millions of workers seem to have swallowed it whole. How do Marxists and progressives account for such a self-defeating situation?

Marxism theorizes that the collectivization of industrial labor leads to the unification of working-class interests and culture, guided by the Communist movement into a revolutionary overthrow of capitalism. What happened in Nazi Germany was the unification of the society by appeals to religion, patriotism, sexual repression, and scorn for intellectuals. To this day, working masses around the world are often easily drawn into alliances with the rich and powerful at the expense of their own emancipatory interests. Critical Theory sought to explain this and to do so, it sought resources that lay outside those typically considered politically acceptable to Marxists, namely, Freud, Kant, Weber, among others.

In the decades since the Frankfurt School first coalesced in the 1930s, critical theorists have continued to seek out and extend a critical understanding of political and social development. In the 1960s, Feminism came into the picture to challenge the gender biases of both Marx and Freud. Other challenges to critical thought have come from environmentalist, anarchist, anti-racist, and anti-heterosexist movements and thinkers. Addressing all of these critiques and their relevance to an integrative theory of social evolution is obviously a massive undertaking, but some beginning is vitally important.

One beginning point is class-consciousness. This is a fundamental component of Marxism, though it is not confined to Marxism. Class-consciousness is simply a recognition of the division of power in society that is perpetuated by our contemporary economic system. In all of the things I have read by Wilber, he nowhere acknowledges that the evolution of consciousness might be impacted by economic factors such as poverty, lack of education, or hierarchical workplace conditions. If Wilber has in fact considered this possibility, its lack in his major works, such as Sex, Ecology, and Spiritualityor A Brief Theory of Everything suggests that at best he considers it only weakly relevant or at worst that he considers it has no relevance.

Another element of Critical Theory that addresses the prevalence of fascist mindsets is psychoanalysis. Freud’s theory of the unconscious proposed that we do not always act rationally because we are emotionally deformed, often in our infantile development. Frankfurt theorist Theodor Adorno collaborated with American psychologists to produce the seminal work The Authoritarian Personality which proposed a model for measuring authoritarian tendencies in individuals, as well as a theory of how such authoritarian tendencies become part of the personality. The chief culprit in TAP is harsh parental discipline and abuse.

Here is where Wilber’s concept of pathology in Integral Psychology becomes relevant. Ideally, the development of consciousness involves a wider and wider social world, beginning with infantile egoism and advancing through stages of transcending and including the lower stages in a higher awareness that takes in the interests of others in growing circles of affinity. When something obstructs the ideal stage progression, the personality clings to a lower stage of awareness in an attempt to save the self from a perceived threat. The result is a pathological – neurotic or psychotic – disconnection from healthy awareness and agency.

The combination of class-consciousness and psychoanalysis led critical theorists to the ingenious, though perhaps by now obvious, conclusion that the working masses’ propensity for self-defeat and acquienscence to authoritarianism originated in developmental malformations in childhood, i.e. psychological trauma. Instead of seeing potential “Nazis” everywhere, critical theory offers a sympathetic account of human woundedness that underlies the fearsome threat of mass fascism.

The rise of fascism in Germany was explained by Critical theory as the result of harsh parental discipline that was widespread in the pre-War era. Mothers who had to work due to poverty, could not attend their infants with the sort of indulgent parenting that middle-class mothers could. Even if a working mother was inclined to indulgence, the conditions of poverty and stress would frustrate such aspirations. The conclusion is that poverty psychologically traumatizes infants, obstructing the ideal developmental sequence so prized by Ken Wilber and other integral thinkers. Much, much more could be said here, for example, taking in feminist accounts of how predominantly female mothering leads to sexist attitudes in boys and girls. For the time being, hopefully, what I have written persuades some in the integral/integrative development movement to consider constructive changes in their approach.

The project of a “Critical Integrative Theory” would pursue many of the worthy aims of Wilber’s Integral theory, but subject them to a wide range of radical rethinking that draws on the continuing work of critical theorists. Wilber’s concern about billions of potential Nazis is worrying, but understanding the psychoanalytic and class determinants on human agency reveals that Nazism is not a “natural” stage of development, pace Wilber’s contentions, but rather a pathological developmental aberration. The challenge to integral activists is to use the evitability of pathology as an opening to rethink the project of changing the world. To this point, Wilber’s mode has been to groom a middle-class cadre of enlightened mystics. The elitism of that approach seems self-evident, but also understandable from a critical theory perspective. The psychological development of middle-class infants has its own set of neurotic and pathological pitfalls.