Per Caritatem

In reading various texts—whether of a philosophical, political, literary, or economic nature—it is striking how many authors offer a (re)reading of the Genesis Fall narrative and then proceed to use their particular reading as the hermeneutical lens through which they explicate their position as a whole or at least to illuminate some significant theme integral to their position.  Consider Hegel’s interpretation of the Fall as necessary for the ultimate good of humankind, or Kant’s re-reading of Genesis in his essay, Conjectural Beginning of Human History, where he claims that the original transgression actually causes reason to emerge.  That is, prior to the Fall, humans did not possess a moral or rational capacity for such a decision. However, with the Fall, we overcame our “tutelage” to nature (i.e., instinctual animal-like existence).  For Kant, within the human race itself and from the very beginning, there is an inherent struggle, a tension between sociability and unsociability.  This is quite different than the traditional Christian narrative, which affirms the current dis-integration of humans, that is, an inner struggle of desires that tear at our very being and which was not present from the beginning; rather, this unnatural condition is a result of our willful turn away (“fall”) from the Triune Creator.Invisible Hand by Mark Bailen

Friedrich Hayek, economist, philosopher, self-professed promoter of liberalism even writing an essay to distance himself from conservatism,[1] ardent defender of free-market capitalism, and winner of the 1974 Nobel Prize in economics, though in no way an advocate of Christian Holy Writ, offers a narrative about economics that, as Jung Mo Sung observes, shares certain structural similarities with the Genesis Fall narrative. Though himself an agnostic, Hayek acknowledges rather begrudgingly that beneficial practices have resulted from religious beliefs, in particular, monotheistic religious beliefs, “which are not true—or verifiable or testable in the same sense as are scientific statements and which are certainly not the result of rational argumentation” (The Final Conceit, 136–7).  If Hayek were a Christian, we might interpret this statement as allowing for the possibility of truths that are revealed by faith—suprarational, not irrational truths; however, given Hayek’s rejection of Christianity, this interpretation is not an option.  Interestingly, Hayek’s view of economics has deeply influenced the way that many conservative Christians (as well as others) think about the free market.  (This is not in itself “damning” in my view, as many non-Christian philosophies, insights, etc. have been appropriated by Christians for the furtherance of their tradition and to aid in the explication of their own teachings; however, what would be “damning” is if the teaching or ethos appropriated is fundamentally at odds with the Christian faith, tradition, and teachings of Christ himself).

Upon reception of the Nobel Prize in economics, Hayek presented a lecture entitled, “The Pretence of Knowledge.” In the lecture, he speaks against a “scientist” approach to economics which attempts to apply “habits of thought to fields different from that in which they have been formed.”[2] In other words, according to Hayek, economics does not belong with the “hard” (physical) sciences, as it deals with complex phenomena that are not quantifiable, observable, measurable, etc. in the same way that the phenomena of the physical sciences are.  One might grant this conclusion; yet, Hayek goes further, claiming that because we cannot understand, completely master, etc. a phenomena as complex as the market, attempts to do so are dangerous and harmful.  For Hayek, the great economic crisis of the 1970s was due to Keynesian interventionist policies.  Like Adam and Eve, whose desire to be omniscient overtook them, moving them to partake of the fruit of the forbidden tree and thus created havoc for them and others beyond their wildest dreams, so too, according to Hayek, do those who dare steer the invisible hand of the free market system lead us to our doom.  “To act on the belief that we possess the knowledge and the power which enable us to shape the processes of society entirely to our liking, knowledge which in fact we do not possess, is likely to make us do much harm.”[3] There is no doubt that certain kinds of interventionist policies could be used for tyrannical, totalitarian purposes; however, does it necessarily follow that they must?  One could become very pessimistic about any attempts to regulate or direct the market for purposes of social justice. One could also choose to believe that social and economic problems will somehow solve themselves through the unintended effects of the Smithian benevolent, invisible hand.  (I am not claiming that these are the only possible options). To opt for the second possibility, as Sung highlights, is not only an act of faith, but an (irrational) leap of faith.

[I]f it is true that we cannot sufficiently understand the factors and dynamics of the market so that we can intervene in it, how can we know that the market always produces beneficial effects or that it is essentially a ‘force for good’? Is knowing that the market always produces beneficial effects not a pretension of knowledge of the market? Since one cannot prove this providential character of the market, we have here a ‘leap of faith’ in the affirmation of the essentially beneficent quality of free market.[4]

Hayek, highly influenced by philosopher Karl Popper (and, it seems, Popper’s literal reading of Plato’s Republic as a blueprint for totalitarianism!), held to an (obviously non-theistic) view of evolutionary morality, which as I understand it—and I am open to correction here as I have not read the entire book and am no expert on Hayek’s work—suggests that we move beyond primitive instincts—“rules of solidarity and altruism” (The Fatal Conceit, 13) and “treat[ing] all men as neighbors.”  Why?  “For those now living within the extended order gain from not treating one another as neighbors, and by applying, in their interactions, rules of the extended order [=”free market economy”]—instead of the rules of solidarity and altruism” (Ibid.). Somehow, I just don’t think Jesus would approve.

Notes


[1] See his essay, “Why I am Not a Conservative.”

[2] “Friedrich August von Hayek – Prize Lecture.” Nobelprize.org. 22 Jul 2010 http://nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/economics/laureates/1974/hayek-lecture.html.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Beyond the Spirit of Empire, p. 82.

* The Invisible Hand Image was created by Mark Bailen and was copied from this website.

 

In his essay, “What is Enlightenment?”, Foucault notes that Baudelaire heralds artist Constantin Guys as an example of modernity.  As Foucault explains, “what makes him [Guys] the modern painter par excellence in Baudelaire’s eyes is that, just when the whole world is falling asleep, he begins to work, and he transfigures that world.  His transfiguration does not entail an annulling of reality, but a difficult interplay between the truth of what is real and the exercise of freedom; ‘natural’ things become ‘more than natural,’ ‘beautiful’ things become ‘more than beautiful,’ and individual objects appear ‘endowed with an impulsive life like the soul of [their] creator.’  For the attitude of modernity, the high value of the present is indissociable from a desperate eagerness to imagine it, to imagine it otherwise than it is, and to transform it not by destroying it but by grasping it in what it is.  Bauderlairean modernity is an exercise in which extreme attention to what is real is confronted with the practice of a liberty that simultaneously respects this reality and violates it” (41, emphases added).Resistance is Futile

Does this not sound like Foucault’s own project? That is, as Foucault’s analyses of delinquents, the insane, and the sick evidence, we must turn our attention to the real, concrete instances of “life on the ground.” For instance, we must look to the various oppressions of the marginalized and exploited, as well as other subjectivities created through the complex interplay of social apparatuses, institutions, discourses etc. In so doing, we see how subjects are in fact not autonomous, exposing what Joerg Rieger calls, “the myth of individualism,”[1] but rather are shaped by the particular practices, institutions, language, and myriad other beyond-our-control  convergences and socio-political relations into which we are born into and live out our existence.  Even so, as Foucault explicitly affirms, particularly in his later essays and interviews,[2] we are nonetheless agents who can in fact resist other-imposed narratives; social construction for Foucault does not go “all the way down.”  Rather, as human free agents, we can transgress self and other imposed limits, narratives etc.  All this highlights Foucault’s attempt to balance and give full weight to both social and self construction, an issue which he believes is thematized in modernity.  On the one hand, we must pay “extreme attention to what is real” (i.e. study and analyze the ways in which disciplinary practices are inscribed upon the bodies of prisoners creating very specific subjectivities). On the other hand, as free agents, we engage these realities—albeit social and not natural realities— “with the practice of a liberty that simultaneously respects and violates [them]” (41).  Resistance, for Foucault, is decidedly, not futile.

Notes


[1] Beyond the Spirit of Empire:  Theology and Politics in a New Key, 48.

[2] See, for example, Foucault’s essay, “The Subject and Power.”

 

Post image for Frederick Douglass on Expanding Liberty: A Quick Post-Independence Day ReflectionThe following excerpt comes from Dr. J. Kameron Carter’s post on Frederick Douglass. If you haven’t read Dr. Carter’s recent book, published by Oxford University Press,Race:  A Theological Account, I encourage you to give it a read.  It’s an excellent, thoughtful, theologically-informed analysis of race, engaging figures such as Michel Foucault, Maximus the Confessor, Kant, Frederick Douglass, Harriet Jacobs, James Cone and others.

Toward an American Theology of Freedom

In 1962, when the civil rights fervor in our country was approaching a tipping point, the great theologian Karl Barth made his one and only trip to the United States. (Of course, I have to get Barth in here given the extensive study I’m doing of him in relation to my current book project.) On that trip he implored his American hosts of the need to demythologize the Statue of Liberty. What did Barth mean by this? He was pointing to the need for an ideologically-unhinged approach to liberty. In short, he was calling for a true and specifically American theology of freedom.

But little did Barth know, to say nothing of his many American interpreters even now, that his call to demythologize liberty put him in an interesting company of thinkers and activists. This was a tradition of black intellectuals spanning the trans-Atlantic. A central figure in this tradition was Frederick Douglass. (His image heads this post.)

In 1852 (on the 4th of July of that year, to be exact), just over a century before Barth showed up in America, Douglass called for a similar demythologizing of and deeper reflection on freedom and liberty in American life. Indeed, he carried out the unmasking and in the process discerned that at the center of the mythos of American liberty and its political shortcomings on the key question of the day, which was slavery, was a deep and profound failure of Christian social imagination. It was in that magnificent piece of political oratory, “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?,” that Douglass took up his analysis of liberty and freedom. (You can find the entire speech here.)

 

Beyond-the-Spirit-of-EmpireIn his book, Beyond the Spirit of Empire:  Theology and Politics in a New Key,  co-authored with Néstor Míguez and Jung Mo Sung, Joerg Rieger discusses how the production of a specific kind of desire functions within capitalistic Empires.  “Demand is infinite since, unlike needs, desires are infinite as well.  Thus, unlimited desire provides the basis for unlimited consumerism.  As a result, limited resources must be negotiated with potentially infinite desires” (58).  Rieger then turns to Girard’s notion of “mimetic desire.”  As its name indicates, mimetic desire is “not the ordinary desire of particular objects but the imitation of other people’s desire”[1] (58).  On this model, a “conflictual relation” emerges between the one who imitates another’s desire and the one whose desire is imitated.[2] This kind of struggle or conflict relation does not apply merely to individuals but to relations between larger social configurations.  As one can imagine, poorer nations often find their natural resources exploited, not to mention the exploitation of workers, that is, human beings de-valued and transformed into a cheap labor force so that desires of the wealthy can be satiated—not that they actually are satiated.  Such inhumane, instrumental treatment of course affects how the poor perceive themselves.  The poor, however, are not the only ones whose  subjectivities are shaped (internally and externally) by this never-ending-always-chasing-after-more social apparatus, the subjectivities of the wealthy are likewise constructed.  As Rieger explains,

Mimetic desire helps us to understand some of the deeper levels of human relationships and subjectivity under the current conditions of Empire, Subjectivity itself becomes what we might call ‘mimetic subjectivity’.  Competition is not simply based on the scarcity of desirable objects, as is often assumed, it is based on mimetic desire.  What drives economic progress, consumption, and the progress of the structures of Empire from this point of view, is that others want what the wealthy already have.  The result is the extraordinarily intense competition that has come to be accepted as the essence of free-market economies.  It is not hard to see that there is little room for [… ] an active subject, except at the very top of society.  But even there a constant battle ensues about who tops the lists, who is wealthier and more powerful, […] Mimetic desire can never be satisfied.  The problem is compounded, of course, for those who cannot keep up. When they are drawn into this system, they can only perceive themselves as failures, as theorists from the Southern Hemisphere have pointed out.  What makes this mimetic desire so effective in the pursuit of Empire is that it seems to have a snowball effect, and it seems that we are witnessing this effect in extreme forms today.  Moreover, there is a built-in reciprocity that leads to further escalation, since, in Girard’s words, “the model is likely to be mimetically affected by the desire of its imitator’ [Girard, “Mimesis and Violence,” 12] (48-49).

Notes


[1] See Girard, Violence and the Sacred, 146

[2] Ibid., 147.

 

In between dissertation reading and writing, I have been spending time with a wonderful book, Beyond the Spirit of Empire:  Theology and Politics in a New Key,  co-authored by Néstor Míguez, Joerg Rieger, Jung Mo Sung.  (Professor Rieger, is, I am delighted to say, the third reader of my dissertation).  I hope to have at least some time this summer to devote a few substantive blog posts to this book, which I have found thoroughly refreshing and on the mark with its assessments of our market-driven way of being.  In the meantime, let me whet your appetite with this witty excerpt discussing the market as “financial games”  involved “virtual goods” and played for the benefit of the elite few at the expense of the exposed many.EmperorsNewClothes-Melilot

[I]n the economic jargon imposed by the businesses of hegemonic communication “the markets”, or even in the singular “the market”, does not refer any more to places for the exchange of goods, where producers and artisans sell and exchange their products.  It does not even refer to the most abstract derivations of the celebration of the buying and selling transaction.  Rather the market now refers to financial games.  The notion that the ‘market formulates prices’ within industrial capitalism has now given way to finances.  The great fortunes of today are not established by the possession of material goods but rather from bank accounts, financial wealth and other forms of “virtual goods” such as trademarks, patents, images, use of business ‘logos’ in the form of merchandizing, and so on.  Things virtual, fantasy or fetish, to use Marxist language, have replaced, scammed, and annulled what is real.  It is just like the story of the witty tailors who scammed the emperor by selling him a robe of non-existent cloth and telling the gullible crowd that only the wise can see it. So everyone refrained from telling the emperor that he did not have any clothes on, for then they would be considered stupid.  Today we all believe that things exist that others say exist, even though personally we do not see them. But in this case we have all been forced to wear these invisible robes and we all fear to discover that we are naked. African Children Starving The only one who is dressed is the emperor (“Empire, Religion, and the Political,” in Beyond the Spirit of Empire:  Theology and Politics in a New Key by Néstor Míguez, Joerg Rieger, Jung Mo Sung, 11–12).