Elias Isquith of Salon recently interviewed the Rev. Dr. Chris Hedges, the Minister of Social Witness and Prison Ministry at Second Presbyterian Church of Elizabeth, NJ (PCUSA), the author of several books, and a former reporter for the New York Times. Hedges is sounding a clarion call of warning which I’m interested to hear coming from a self-described socialist. When Isquith asked him, “Do you think we are in a revolutionary era now? Or is it more something on the horizon?” Hedges responded,
It’s with us already, but with this caveat: it is what Gramsci calls interregnum, this period where the ideas that buttress the old ruling elite no longer hold sway, but we haven’t articulated something to take its place.
That’s what that essay I quote by Alexander Berkman, “The Invisible Revolution,” talks about. He likens it to a pot that’s beginning to boil. So it’s already taking place, although it’s subterranean. And the facade of power—both the physical facade of power and the ideological facade of power—appears to remain intact. But it has less and less credibility.
There are all sorts of neutral indicators that show that. Low voter turnout, the fact that Congress has an approval rating of 7 percent, that polls continually reflect a kind of pessimism about where we are going, that many of the major systems that have been set in place—especially in terms of internal security—have no popularity at all.
All of these are indicators that something is seriously wrong, that the government is no longer responding to the most basic concerns, needs, and rights of the citizenry. That is [true for the] left and right. But what’s going to take its place, that has not been articulated. Yes, we are in a revolutionary moment; but maybe it’s a better way to describe it as a revolutionary process.
I think Hedges is right. As Isquith notes, however, most of the American Left is singing a very different song, with the President and his closest admirers sounding positively Panglossian about the state of the world. I suspect most liberals would dismiss conservative pessimism as little more than whining induced by liberal political/judicial victories. Hedges is too hard left, and far too experienced an observer, to be so dismissed.
This is good, because what looms before us isn’t a partisan crisis. Some great upheavals, of course, are only a crisis for the losing side in a political/cultural realignment, because they’re the bitter fruit of defeat. True crises are the poisoned fruit of victory. In this case, I’m starting to think our world is skidding into a crisis which is the poisoned fruit of the Reagan Revolution. I do not say that Reagan’s victory was bad in its time; I don’t believe it was. I do think that American conservatives have been fighting the last war since about halfway through the first Bush administration. We have failed to understand that if all you do is try to copy the victories of the last war, all you get is the defeats of the next.
In Reagan’s day, amid the simmering crisis of the Cold War, Pope John Paul II was a prophetic voice against the evil of communism. In ours, I think Pope Francis is playing a similar role. R. R. Reno’s reflections on the Bishop of Rome and his urgent rhetoric deserve deep and careful consideration.
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.
(Note: this article is behind the paywall, only available to non-subscribers for an individual purchase. I think it’s worth the $1.99; I also think the magazine is more than worth the subscription price.)
Reno identifies four challenges which left and right alike need to take with grave seriousness.
- Capitalism Triumphant. “Corporate Goliaths are reshaping local economies throughout the world. They’re also overwhelming local political cultures. . . . 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 Reno is correct, this is what has been driving the shift away from class politics to identity politics, with the resulting eclipse of labor unions and rising political/cultural fragmentation. It has certainly created a widespread utilitarianism so crass it would make even Bentham and Mill gag. People routinely evaluate education and educational institutions purely by how much money they enable people to earn. The apostles of government-run healthcare apply the same dollars-and-cents calculus to the value of every human life.
- The Technocratic Internationale. “Global capitalism drives tremendous political changes, but it cannot usher in an end of politics. . . . 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.” Hedges notes the same thing in a different way:
We have, to quote John Ralston Saul, “undergone a corporate coup d’état in slow motion” and it’s over. The normal mechanisms by which we carry out incremental and piecemeal reform through liberal institutions no longer function. They have been seized by corporate power—including the press. That sets the stage for inevitable blowback, because these corporations have no internal constraints, and now they have no external constraints. So they will exploit, because, as Marx understood, that’s their nature, until exhaustion or collapse.
Yes, I think that comment belongs under this heading rather than under the first one, because this second challenge is the consequence of the first. Reno and Hedges have both identified the eclipse of national structures which can be held accountable through democratic processes by transnational ones which are accountable only to technocratic ideals. As Reno concludes, “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. This is a further consequence of the economic utilitarianism I noted above. “Modern science in its theoretical mode is winding down as universities orient themselves toward technology. . . . 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. . . . Money-making’s invasion of science and the closely related transformation of inquiry into technological innovation have . . . done much to undermine reason’s higher vocation, that of contemplation.”
- Naked Power. “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 [Gianni] Vattimo correctly notes, we’re now critical and skeptical of strong truths. . . . 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. . . . Society defines rights—and ‘society’ really means the powerful, those able to dominate and control the rights-defining process.”
Reno describes his thoughts as “overstated, perhaps, even hyperbolic”—but I don’t think they are. I think his eyes are keen. I think he’s taken a long, hard look in the direction in which Pope Francis is pointing, and has seen the threats that loom ahead. I hope the Bishop of Rome keeps word-bombing us out of our complacency, and I hope Reno keeps following his lead. Mostly, I hope it isn’t too late.
John Horsburgh, Bell Rock Lighthouse during a storm from the northeast, 1824, engraving, after a drawing by J. M. W. Turner. Public domain.