I include this book and commentary here on the blog because it is an important contribution to the American political debate, not that anyone will be listening. There are few philosophical implications not brought out in the book itself. My purpose in this commentary is to note other of my reviewed books that address this issue, and to describe, briefly, my own experience with identity politics.
First Slavoj Zizek who in his recent book “The Courage of Hopelessness” (linked) and several other recent books, gets into this subject at some length making, in Zizek’s inimical style, exactly the same points. Another is Cathrine Mayer’s “Attack of the 50 Foot Women” (linked), and also Mickel Adzema’s “Culture War, Class War” (reviewed, but not on the blog. Link is to book on Amazon) which touch broadly on the same issues. All four of these books make the same point: Identity Politics has had a corrosive impact on the ability of liberal voters to come together with a coherent program offering any hope of countering the rise of intolerant Right-Wing politics. Adzema blames all of this on the political Right, but the other three note correctly that the Left is complicit in the process.
My own experience with identity politics comes from social media, the 21st century editorial arena. I was some years on Google+ (now defunct) and so now with an outfit called MeWe (MeWe.com) which is structurally similar. I am also on Twitter. As for Face Book, I have no account, but my girl friend has and she shows me plenty! All of these forums both illustrate and facilitate the corrosive impact of identity politics. This has become especially noticeable as we enter the 2020 election cycle. Identity politics narrows dialog between groups. Social media reinforces that constriction (the “silo” or “bubble” effect well noted by many authors) by allowing users to choose those and only those whose views they will see and to which they respond.
The various identity factions simply do not (or very rarely) talk to one another. I have been hammered (and blocked) by those identifying with the LGBTQ+ community, sub-segments of the black community, American natives, or sex workers, merely for suggesting that their political interests might be better served if they aligned, politically, with a wider community. None of them seem to get it. Hyper-narrow political self interest cannot foster the kind of broad consensus needed to take and hold political power in the United States.
The present Democratic field illustrates the problem. Half the candidates in the race are perceived (rightly or wrongly) as supporters, primarily, of one identity or another. Back on social media I cannot tell you how disappointed I am to note how many of their various supporters say they won’t vote if their favorite candidate is not the nominee, exactly the attitude (on the part of Bernie Sanders supporters) that got Trump elected in 2016. If I try to point this out to people, if I try to say in one way or another that electing a broadly liberal democrat, whomever it might be, is more important than any emphasis on a particular identity I am summarily rejected from the community of that particular silo.
You might think that climate change would be the sort of issue that could unite everyone. It is, like world war, a matter that impacts everyone. But climate change, while it will become far more disastrous than any world war to date (not to mention possibly spawning the next one), grows more impact-full over generational time scales, far longer than an election cycle. Compared to the immediacy of perceived identity discrimination, no one today has the patience to work for a solution to the already-upon-us effects that will continue to grow more severe for the next three or four generations even if we acted, as a world, both decisively and immediately.
In his conclusion, Lilla extols liberals to find a vision that will transcend narrow identity issues and gather the flock. Roosevelt did it in the 1930s, but his vision promised, and mostly delivered, change-for-the-better that could be felt over a single generation. I do not know what can be offered now that will fill that requirement!
This is the story of what ails the American Left, really the center-left, the vanishing species called “the American liberal”. Lilla begins with what he takes to be the furthest left America has ever been, roughly that period from 1934 to 1970 (the “Roosevelt Era”), quickly fading and dead with the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980. The American Left wasn’t socialist, and certainly not communist. It did represent the redistribution of tax wealth into projects that uplifted the broad swath of the American people producing infrastructure, regulation, and services that made possible all the subsequent wealth coupled with a clean environment generated from 1980 to the present. It also kicked off the social movements that resulted in a more inclusive American society. Not only was it inclusive, it was a vision of shared moral responsibility, citizenship. A vision that motivated even the hippy movement of the 1960s.
In a sense the left did too well. The social fabric of the country and its booming economy made it possible for individuals to abandon the moral demands of a citizenship and focus instead on their individual aims, goals having no moral obligation to the nation. By 1980, the Roosevelt vision of a shared America where people and their government worked together to uplift all had lost its luster. In his re-election campaign, Jimmy Carter told the American people that recovery from the excesses of “Great Society” spending and the Vietnam war would take work, conservation, a shared vision of doing the hard work now so things would be better again in the future. In short, Carter advocated austerity (ironically, had America taken that path we would be now much farther along in the process of curtailing greenhouse gas — this an aside, not Lilla’s subject).
Reagan guessed correctly at the new national mood. He resurrected the myth of American hyper-individualism in a later 20th century form (ironically beginning the debt-fueled-growth America remains locked in today). Moral obligation to “the nation” disappeared from the American dialog, all the way down to the elimination of civics lessons in public schools. This, the “Reagan Era” has continued on down to today. The election of Donald Trump marks the logical conclusion of this doctrine, the idea that if everyone just does the best he or she can to get what he or she wants, the country will do fine. But when a national people are shorn of any obligation to think in national terms they gradually lose the ability to do so. The result is a loss of shared identity, a reason to compromise with others with whom you may have political disagreement.
Meanwhile back in the late 70s, on to Reagan’s election and beyond to today, the Left, the liberals, having accepted that things had changed, made a strategic blunder, really two of them. First, they put their energy into higher education figuring that a technologically savvy America would require large numbers of people with advanced educations. Surely their choice proved correct from an economic viewpoint, but not the political. The universities became separated from the broad middle of the country, their graduates perceived as effete snobs “out of touch” with the average person.
The second blunder was worse. Liberals abandoned the “all in it together” vision that had given liberalism its power in the post WWII period. Instead, liberals began emphasizing more narrow definitions of identity, dissipating what had been previously unified. This proved highly popular with students because it reinforced their natural tendency to identify with people more like themselves instead of making broader and more difficult connections demanding compromise. The result emphasized the Reagan vision of hyper individualism and helped corrode away any pull that a broader concept of “belonging as citizen” might have had.
This then is the problem we face today and for the next (2020) election cycle. The Right’s hyper-individualism has wiped out much of the middle class creating a nation of the hyper-rich few and the mass of the rest whose economic prospects have steadily dimmed over the past 50 years. But the modern left (the liberals and progressives) have offered no unifying vision. Instead they are trapped in the monster they created, the intolerance-of-difference of modern identity politics. Lilla ends here, extolling the liberal-left to articulate a new “all in it together” vision. Alas, I see no evidence of this happening.
All of this is the subject of Lilla’s book. I have tried to summarize it here, but there is more in the details he gives us.
What more is to be said about this book (the Amazon review included below)? Its author clearly does not believe, giving good reasons throughout, Donald Trump is fit to be the president of the United States. In his last chapters he (or she) asks what is to be done? He (or she) tells Democrats that their visceral hatred of Trump, their “get him out by any means” attitude, is not helpful to the very process of getting him out. Although this is perhaps technically true the author does not seem to understand the origin of the reaction because he (or she) yet remains a Republican albeit not a Trump supporter. Three options are explored, the 25th Amendment, impeachment, or electoral loss.
The 25th Amendment (majority of cabinet and vice president certify to the speakers of House and Senate that the president does not have the capacity, is not fit, to conduct his duties) route is rejected immediately. Yet despite a whole book of argument that Trump is in fact incompetent (for intellectual and moral reasons), the author believes 25th Amendment criterion are not technically met (Trump is not in a coma). Moreover, it is claimed that the exercise of this amendment would tear the country apart like nothing since the civil war. What are we being told here? Does the author believe that the violent white supremacist cohort who unanimously voted for him would explode into killing sprees across the country? Surely that this particular cohort is so fully behind him is one good reason for the visceral hatred of the man? If you hate Nazis, why wouldn’t you hate a man who gives them rein?
Impeachment the author takes to be a viable and legitimate process, but almost as divisive as using the 25th Amendment. Moreover he accuses the House Democratic majority of being distracted, by impeachment, from real work. But the House democratic majority accomplished a lot prior to beginning the impeachment process, all of it summarily blocked without even debate by the Republican majority in the Senate. If Trump is immoral and broadly incompetent, supporting his agenda must also be immoral at least. Now there isn’t anything particularly new here as concerns congress. Corruption knows no party affiliation. But given that Republicans curry votes of the rich (and most who fantasize about being rich), the democrats must curry favor with the broader swath of the American electorate. As result, the democrats are less likely to be corrupt in the direct and obvious ways true today of most Republicans.
Corporate interests have captured much of both houses of the American congress. This has been true long before Trump. But Trump has poured gasoline on the fire of Republican greed. Today congressional Republicans will vote for anything, even bloated Federal budgets they have historically opposed, so long as it promises to make them richer, not to mention getting them re-elected; hypocrisy taken to extremes! Is this not another reason for the visceral hatred now directed at their ranks?
Finally the author tells us we can vote Trump out and that this is the cleanest and least controversial way to get the job done. But we are cautioned there must be an overwhelming vote against Trump. Why overwhelming? Because, we are told, if the vote is close his (or her) reading of the man is that he won’t leave without challenging it, trying to block it in courts that he himself has packed. Could he get away with this? Not if majorities in both houses (whether democrats alone or a mixture of both parties) opposed it. But if the senate remains in Republican hands, and those Republicans stand behind the challenge, we will be in far more dangerous waters than has ever been the case here in these United States. Seems to me another good reason for visceral hatred!
How did Trump get elected? The Russians did not (as far as I know) hack voting machines and change votes. All they did was flood social media with propaganda. Once Trump became the nominee it was inevitable that registered Republicans would vote for him no matter what the Russians said. Russian propaganda had far more impact on Democrats and Independents. The more ignorant among these, not immune to the propaganda directed against Hilary Clinton, were persuaded not to vote at all, and that is what swung the tide for Trump.
More interestingly, the question is how did Trump become the nominee? It cannot be simply that he supported the traditionally Republican “wedge issues”, pro-gun and anti-abortion. These issues have swayed Republicans against their own economic interests since Reagan. Every other Republican candidate, all universally castigating Trump during the primary process, advocated the same positions on such issues. The answer lies with those white supremacists who never much voted before because no candidate, on either side, gave them a voice. Trump did give them a voice and they voted for him en-mass in primary after primary.
Personally I do fear the Trump administration. Not so much Trump personally but rather the combination of Trump and all the senior White House staff (not to mention Republicans in congress) who appear to be encouraging his destructive behavior. I fear the collection because I think Trump is an evil clown but not a very smart one, except as concerns his instincts regarding his base. I would be more afraid if he was both evil and, like Hitler or Stalin, also smart. Trouble is greatly multiplied when an evil figurehead is supported by others who are not only evil but also smart, or in Trump’s case at least smarter than him.
I do disagree with the author of “A Warning” on this one point. Those who voted for Trump, and especially those who continue to support him (whether in congress or the electorate) now three years into a term in which the U.S. has lost all international good will and generated a ruinous debt, deserve all the opprobrium directed at them! There never were, and are not now (especially) any “good excuses” in the matter. Supporting Trump can only mean outright evil for its own sake, hypocrisy for the sake of personal gain or religious delusion, or willful ignorance.
Each year seems to bring out a new and negative book about the Trump presidency. I’ve read and reviewed now three of them, Wolff’s “Fire and Fury”, Woodward’s “Fear”, and now this one by an anonymous source who claims (at least at the time of writing) still to be in place monitoring the administration from inside the White House. The material is certainly recent. Published in November 2019, it relates episodes that occurred as late as October of this same year! There is good reason to want to rush this out and make sure it is as up-to-date as possible.
A Warning is less detailed than the other two books. The author does not give us detailed time lines and lists of the players involved in specific events except as needed to flesh out what he (or she) really wants to say. To be clear, the author is a republican who began his tenure in the Trump White House with every intention of carrying out the duties of his (or her) office supporting a broadly Republican agenda. What he (or she) discovered, however, is that the president not only doesn’t know the Republican agenda, he doesn’t much care. Nor does he know anything about how the U.S. government works (or is supposed to work), how the three [supposedly] co-equal branches interact, or how America fits into the global system of which it is (or was) a linchpin! I suppose it is still a linchpin, but is quickly breaking down..
The beginning of the real problem as the author sees it, is not that Trump doesn’t know how all these complex entities work and come together. Almost all incoming presidents are less than masters of one or more or these matters. The difference is that other incoming presidents care! Most stay up late reading about these things and get up early to acquire still more understanding. They listen to dissenting voices and factor their views into policy considerations. Trump doesn’t read. He doesn’t want to read, and he doesn’t care for advice from anyone either unless it reinforces his already naive and dangerously simplistic view of every issue including the very laws and principles (and history) that are the foundation of the United States! Trump has, it would seem, only one agenda: to glorify himself in comparison to everyone else. He is, in short, a megalomaniac!
That is, broadly speaking, what this book is about. It sketches Trump’s mania through chapter after chapter on issues ranging from his moral character, the domestic legislative agenda, appointments (the lack thereof) to key departments, his relation to both parties in congress, and on to foreign policy in which Trump appears to be methodically cozying up to America’s enemies while alienating every ally the U.S. has worked with for the past 75 years! Indeed the author appears flummoxed on the matter of foreign policy. Unlike Trump’s domestic problems which might be laid up to ignorance (and not caring) his actions on the world stage (about which he is equally ignorant) appear to be deliberately aimed at denigrating any world leader beholden to his (or her) people broadly conceived; both those who agree and those who disagree whether they are legislators or merely voters. In Trump’s mind, leaders who take dissent into account are weak, while he admires the autocrats who need not care much about what anyone else thinks of them (and we are back to moral character).
In the last third of the book the author turns his (or her) light upon congressional (House and Senate) republicans and looks at how and why most of these folks swung from near universal condemnation of Trump during the run-up to the 2016 nomination to near universal approbation! In the early stages of Trump’s administration, there were voices who all thought would surely help to direct the president towards a steady hand on the tiller of State. Trump named Rex Tillerson as his Secretary of State. Many condemned his choice. “Another member of the establishment Trump promised to dismantle.” I thought: at least Tillerson was a man with years of experience in international affairs, especially in Russia. Mattis (Sec. Defense), after all, was a general. Each was competent in his domain. But to be competent means to disagree (sometimes or often) with a superior who happens not to be competent in that arena. Trump takes any disagreement personally, as disloyalty, an affront. Disagreement, and so competency, is fired from the Trump White House. All the competent people in positions of policy authority are gone.
One might certainly dismiss all of this as fiction even if the so-called source ever did work in the White House. Either that or this individual is one of the new breed of “never-Trumpers”. But I do not buy that. I was born and grew up in New York City. I am only a handful of years younger than Trump. You had to live in a cave not to have heard of his shenanigans. Back then of course nothing he did was any more odious than that done (still done) by wealthy self-important men all over the world. The problem is that what this book claims Trump is doing now is perfectly consistent with his character as it emerged on the local news since the 1990s.
In his last chapter and epilogue he (or she) extols us to do better next time. Good luck with that. What Trump represents did not start with Trump. It began with the turn away from liberal arts in American higher education in the 1970s. Politically it took shape in the 1990s with Newt Gingrich’s “Contract with America” and intolerant ideology of the Tea Party. Whether Trump stays or goes, all of that will still be with us. So much the worse for us all!
As a philosopher there isn’t much more fun to be had than making further comment on a book by Slavoj Zizek. There is so much to be said. But my task here is a depressing one. In “The Courage of Hopelessness” it is the hopelessness that should be emphasized and Zizek, perhaps the most honest of socio-political and cultural commentators, fails to appreciate the gravity of just what it is that faces the global economy in the next 20-40 years. As usual, my full review of the book (published on Amazon) along with a link to the book itself is included below.
I begin and end with ecological and climate catastrophe, the elephants (yes two) in the room Zizek fails to appreciate. Of course he mentions them. He doesn’t much distinguish between them, adding them to the list of stressors on the global milieu. They are related but different. Ecological catastrophe refers to the collapse (partial or full) of the life web that sustains the higher animals like us. Ecology is changed and stressed by climate change (ocean warming, acidification, other knock-on effects) but the ecological catastrophe of interest here is also caused by pollutants dumped mainly in ways that get into the oceans and fresh water systems. Climate change adjusts eco-systems but mostly it extinguishes them only locally. Add human-caused pollution (heavy metals, radioactive waste, industrial chemicals and agricultural runoff, plastics) and what remains of a sustainable wider ecology can be put in jeopardy.
Mostly this commentary will be about climate change because the effects of it come on a little faster than does a broad ecological collapse. There is no escaping their dual inevitability to one degree or another. But the economic impact of climate change alone will be enough to sink the entire Western economic system. Zizek does not talk about this, yet it hovers over everything. In this 2017 article (Science News) the real truth is revealed: “Even if humans could instantly turn off all our emissions of greenhouse gases, the Earth would continue to heat up about two more degrees Fahrenheit by the turn of the century…” In case you are wondering, this isn’t a recent discovery as this article from 1912 illustrates.
Our present ability to feed eight billion humans on Earth is utterly dependent on modern industry and transport. If we could “turn off all our emissions of greenhouse gasses” immediately five or six of the eight billion souls on Earth would die of disease and starvation within a year or two. Really it has been “too late” since the 1950s at latest. Had we fully converted all of our energy use to so-called renewable sources 75 years ago we’d have had a chance of genuinely forestalling the disaster; of affording it. Of course the technology wasn’t in place back in those days and now it is too late. See note below on the carbon cost of “renewable energy”.
The bottom line is that this economic doom faces us no matter who wins the next elections anywhere in the world or even if tomorrow we were all to wake up in the utopian true “universal (world) communism” that Zizek envisions! Climate-related-catastrophe is inevitable. Billions are going to die world wide, and billions more displaced. Our present global civilization (such as it is) is doomed. There are only a few issues yet to be settled. Will we try to spread the disaster out over the next seventy-five years or are we going to precipitate it in the next ten or twenty? If the disaster is now inevitable, what exactly will it look like? Will any mitigating efforts we make in the next human generation (twenty-five years) make any difference at all? In brief, some of my thoughts on these questions follows.
Let me be clear about this. When I say climate disaster dooms us I am not speaking of an extinction event. Human beings will survive albeit in much smaller numbers. The ecological disaster might bring us closer to extinction but that will happen long after climate change has already broken the system. Make no mistake though, while not an extinction event, climate change alone will be the end of our modern, industrial, technological, long distance, service oriented civilization. Eventually we will return to a lifestyle in which most people are once again farmers and these will be scattered into the smaller areas still conducive to growing food.
Countries that are poorer now will suffer sooner because they cannot afford the price of mitigating what is already happening. Crops and water resources will fail. Eventually even the rest of the world will be unable to generate the surplus food needed to feed starving millions. Refugees will flood out of the poorest areas first, putting more economic pressure on everyone else. But the worst case might be the broader Indian sub-continent now Pakistan, India, and Bangladesh. In only a few more decades the Himalayan glaciers will be gone and a billion people will lack for water! Food production will shrink everywhere (Canada and northern Russia perhaps exceptions). North America may be one of the lucky regions able to feed itself, but even this will not be easy.
In the rich countries the disaster will take a different turn, it will be first economic because at this time these countries are spending what capital they have doing exactly the sort of mitigation the poorer nations are unable to afford. America’s deficit is in the trillion dollar range. Already weather-disaster-related mitigation consumes some $50-$100 billion/year and that to rebuild $300 billion in losses that pile up more quickly from year to year. Eventually the number and destructiveness of extreme weather events will be beyond affording. Economic activity will begin to shut down because so much of the necessary infrastructure becomes unusable as we cannot afford to fix it quickly enough. Even if the United States financial system is not broken immediately by China calling in our debt, it will become impossible to afford not only disaster mitigation, but eventually, and as a result of the effects on infrastructure, the cost of transporting food, fuel, and products from one part of the continent to another.
Once this happens the nation will regionalize. The writ of the State will begin to break down. Even today, most of the “States” of the U.S. live on the Federal dole spending more than they take in on their own. The net effect will be a cascading collapse of the economy nation wide. Even the few “rich States” will grow much less rich as the cost of everything from food and transportation to clothing become prohibitive. The annual reconstruction cost each year already exceeds the capacity of the nation (private and federal) to cover it in one year! To add insult to injury, mitigating the immediate effects of these disasters releases even more carbon! Those helicopters don’t run on batteries!
Moving my focus temporarily, I get to the relation between this “elephant in the room” and the rest of Zizek’s incisive observations. On identity politics for example he is surely correct about its diffusing what little energy there is to be put into the left’s genuine “universal emancipatory project”. Some time ago I reviewed the book “Attack of the 50 foot women” by Cathrine Mayer 2017. Ms. Mayer is a crusader for women’s rights. In her book she notes that the rise of “identity politics” steals energy from the larger project of women’s rights more broadly. Why? Because an LGBT+ person who identifies as a woman puts more energy into “trans-rights” specifically than women’s rights in general. Zizek notes this also but in the broader context of labor (male, female, LGBT+ or what have you) versus the capitalist elite which is, for him, still the main problem (even besides climate change and eco-collapse) in the world politically, socially, and economically.
Is Zizek right about this theft of social energy? I believe he is, and he well notes that the capitalists themselves are happy to support LGBT+ movements for two reasons. First because they are happy to sell their products to anyone who can buy them, and happy to have productive labor no matter the sexual identification of the laborer. More significantly, the capitalists are aware that by doing this they contribute to the diffusion of social and political energy away from the more basic issue of capitalism’s unfairness. The left is the party of cultural tolerance (though some tolerance, for example honor killings, goes too far Zizek admits) and in this they find themselves, ironically, aligned with the capitalists! It is this present focus on identity politics that has eviscerated the new-left. He is right about this also. So where does he go wrong?
The main problem is human selfishness, greed, violent propensities, fear of “the neighbor”, and so on. As noted below in my review, Zizek criticizes three proposals to “fix capitalism” on the grounds that each requires a fundamental change in the nature of human beings. The problem is the same is true as concerns his “opening for the left” permitting a return to their broader project of setting right the disparity between capital and labor. When opportunities arise from the sudden breakdown of some existing political, social, or economic order (from Russia in 1917 and Germany in 1934 to the Arab Spring of the 21st Century, there are dozens of examples [most of Africa, Pol Pot] from the 20th Century alone) it is extremely rare (the American experiment being among the few and that in an unusually philosophical time) that a fairer system emerges.
To create something fairer than what preceded the defunct old-guard requires the cooperation of many individual power-centers with competing agendas. To create an autocratic system (or outright dictatorship) requires only that one power-center is well armed and vicious enough to justify its ends by any means. In contrast to Zizek’s claim that “the system cannot be fixed by tinkering” one could well point at England. The English system of political and social pluralism evolved by tinkering; six hundred years of tinkering from the Magna Carta in the 13th century to the Glorious Revolution in the 17th to its almost-modern plurality in the 19th. There was a civil war and a dictatorship in between there too, but the English aristocracy (the only ones with a “vote” at the time) didn’t break the system rather chosing a new King, one who would, at aristocratic behest, put them on the road to a wider plurality, namely themselves. It was tinkering.
This brings us back to the elephant in the room. we haven’t got six hundred years. Climate change will exhaust us economically long before that. So what is to be done? If we do nothing, if the present economic elite is allowed merely to go on as they have the extreme right, Nazism, will once again win out, perhaps not throughout the world but almost certainly in the United States. Why? Because politically a significant percentage of the population already leans in that direction and that segment happens to be the best armed. They are the most vicious and xenophobic. They will not hesitate to kill (more and more as groups and not merely individuals as happens now) to have their way. As social and economic breakdown accelerates political paralysis will follow.
The army will be the only force standing opposed to the armed right, but that too could be under the control of a right wing xenophobic government (refugee mobs will by that time be pressuring borders all over the world). The government might simply use the right to do its bidding in a way analogous to what Chavez in Venezuela (albeit from the left) did with his Bolivarian Militia
Even if the U.S. government is not right-wing, eventually they will be unable to pay the army. Given the army, along with the population, is split along tolerant/intolerant lines, the combination of the intolerant army elements and the existing armed right will easily defeat the tolerant remainder.
What becomes important then is not right versus left or even capitalism versus everyone else, but cultural tolerance (capitalist and neo-left) verses intolerance (xenophobic and racist right)! What must be done, now, by the left, is opposite to what Zizek recommends. The left must strengthen the natural [tolerant] alliance between themselves and the capitalists. Both can agree that within limits (no honor killings) cultural diversity is worth having. The capitalist elite need not become unselfish, only a little less greedy. The left has to acknowledge that corporations (see Phillip Bobbitt “The Shield of Achilles”) will become the core of the State (such State as will remain) as anything more than a minimal over-arching administration under corporate control will be too expensive to maintain. Meanwhile, the capitalists must become only a little less greedy. A larger percentage of what would otherwise be aggrandized profit will needs be returned to labor or everyone will starve and no one will remain to produce or buy anything, even locally!
By contrast, if Zizek gets what he wants, an immediate collapse of capitalism, the economic disaster will occur immediately. This will not stave off climate disaster merely because industry more or less ceases. Instead, as the effects of the collapse gain momentum regional and local communities will be thrown back on whatever resources they command to produce energy, transport what little they have and so on. There may not be as much industry in real terms but what industry there is will become dirtier again as no one will be able to afford pollution mitigation. Our air and water will be poisoned even more quickly than they are being poisoned now.
The ecological collapse will be accelerated (who is going to protect nuclear waste?), and this by the [formerly] rich countries! Moreover, our (rich nation) capacity to even partly rebuild from climate events will cease now instead of twenty or fifty years from now precipitating an even more rapid social disintegration. There is no left-wing anywhere in the world prepared to take advantage of this except of course China. But in the U.S. it will be the armed right that will dominate. The United States could well become the post-apocalyptic nightmare envisioned in so many novels and films.
I perhaps am getting out into left field here, but what Zizek should recommend (has he read Bobbitt? He doesn’t mention him, could he bring himself to contemplate this?) is that the present left take the lesser “worst choice” and align with capitalism! The old left’s “emancipatory project” is doomed one way or another because climate change will render the change-over economically impossible or to put it another way, in the time we have left, corporate capitalism is the only standing system that can, starting now, organize and move resources (while we can still afford to move them) to mitigate individual disasters as they arise. By that I do not mean forestall the climate-precipitated economic disaster, now impossible. What I intend is to ensure the largest possible population survives to come out at the other end however long that takes. This move is already taking place in the U.S. as more and more of what used to be functions of the political State are privatized and spun off to corporations.
Existing corporations also, of course, will be mostly wiped out. No matter what we do many millions will die even in rich countries. The question is will it be millions or tens of millions!? Trade and economic activity generally, especially energy use will shrink geographically, roughly to where it was in 1800. The corporate-capitalist mechanism can [possibly] survive and provide what possible writ of law can exist in that future time. Corporations are, if nothing else, supremely good at resource organization. They can bring whatever resources remain to bear on the problem of climate disaster mitigation.
There is no guarantee that a universal left, even were it to emerge and fully consolidate itself in time (there are not many decades remaining) will focus itself on survival for as many as possible rather than (as is more likely) the survival of a small vicious elite. Corporations have motive that politics by itself has not. Capitalism requires a sufficient number of labor and especially consumers, the more the better. The “rich elite” cannot get or stay rich unless there are people making them the money.
I hadn’t intended this commentary to rest so heavily on climate change, but there isn’t much else to critique about Zizek’s book. As always his social and cultural commentary (occupying 75% of the book) is beyond reproach. The problem is, and this has been his problem in the last few socially-focused books, he treats climate change as merely one more stressor on the system overall. It is that today, only one more stressor. But this one will grow steadily now until it overwhelms all the others, or perhaps triggers them (xenophobia to nationalism to war to nuclear war) instantly collapsing the entire world edifice and killing almost everybody!
There remains one more thing to be said. Zizek tells us many times that there is no “right time” for revolution. Revolutions happen when circumstances come together to make the collapse of a present regime possible given the ardor, number, and organization of the revolutionaries. If the regime is strong enough it will not collapse and instead will break the revolution. But with or without a revolution the present day world-order, however anarchic it is, will shortly collapse for economic reasons without anyone having to do anything in particular to bring it about. Perhaps Zizek and I will not live to witness this event, but I wonder, as must he, if the Left will be ready to take advantage of it when it happens?
[note: carbon cost of renewables] What does it take to make efficient solar panels, build a wind farm, drill for geothermal heat, or construct a gigantic solar farm in the desert? It takes mining and processing of rare earths, ships to transport it all, trucks to construct, and new electric grids (yet to be built) to replace the inefficient ones we have today. All of this new infrastructure then needs maintaining indefinitely. That too requires energy, carbon. Electric vehicles are only a partial answer. Those batteries powering modern electric cars, they have a carbon cost in manufacture and they don’t last forever. Sure we can recycle 90% of their components, but that too requires enormous amounts of energy both to transport and recycle the materials. What the batteries save us is only a fraction of the estimates given by our news outlets and industry pundits.
In the last few years Slavoj Zizek has written the same book several times. He gives us the same argument backed up with different stories. The argument is (1) global capitalism is leading us down a road to disaster of many sorts, (2) the problem cannot be fixed ultimately by tweaking the existing system, but only (3) by destroying it utterly can something better (hopefully) emerge in its place. With each iteration of the argument (a new book every year or two) Zizek has plenty of new material ripped from the headlines upon which to comment. This book, written in 2017 has the fait accompli of Donald Trump’s election in the U.S. and all the hysteria surrounding it. Thanks to how polarized our politics has become (and not merely in the left vs right sense) his task in this book is perhaps made a little easier. To put it another way, the more extreme things become, the easier it is for him to make his points, or to put it yet another way, the easier it is for us to grasp them.
The book begins with an examination of capitalism and three proposals (roughly economic, political, and social) to fix it. He points out that each of these three ideas fails for the same reason. All depend on human beings becoming better than they are now, for example that they become genuinely caring of “the neighbor” or lose the greed that characterizes the capitalist and many others as well. Zizek is, of course, correct in identifying this problem but he also admits (and states) that after all these things (selfishness, violence, and so on) have been problems for humanity long before capitalism existed. This then becomes the problem he never quite addresses. No matter how capitalism is adjusted or replaced the human problem will remain and the potential (even likely) consequences of this are dire. He should know that almost better than everyone.
Following the opening chapter there ensues a long (most of the book) digression into the modern social, political, and economic problem illustrated with news ripped from recent headlines. Refugees, sexual consent culture, identity politics, eco-disaster, fault lines on the political right (religious fundamentalism and social/sexual intolerance verses racism, xenophobia in general and Islamophobia in particular, and so on) and on the left the complete abandonment of the “universal emancipatory project” in favor of political correctness and identity politics supported and welcomed by global capitalism itself! There is no better and more insightful social commentator today and no one, I mean no one, skewers political correctness quite like Zizek.
Throughout all of this commentary we get the usual Hegelian reversals. Nothing is quite as it seems. If one observation is prescient, something can usually be made of its obverse and this too gives us insight into the real situation. Zizek is a master at this (not to mention that third thing that stands for the difference between the first two and has a life of its own) and he delivers on it page after page. All the usual characters are present, Hegel, Marx, Freud, Lacan, and savy political, economic, and social movers and shakers (of the political right and left) present both in and out of our headlines. I do not know how Zizek has the time to find and collate all of this material between books written only a few years apart, but that is why he is the master!
Not until the penultimate chapter does Zizek fully return to the political sphere and lay out his program. Why did he favor Trump? Not because he likes him (his palpable dislike of Hillary Clinton is also on display) but because Trump will break everything opening up the space for the left to return to its “universal emancipatory project”, while Clinton would merely be tinkering around the edges as we slide complacently toward disaster. Zizek is here rather disingenuous, and for this reason I give him four and not five stars. Imagine you are a young person who would, under normal circumstances, live another forty or fifty years. But you have an incurable disease that will kill you in the next five to ten years. The best medical science can do is give you a normal life for that time in the hope that a cure can be found. Along comes Dr. Zizek who offers you the possibility of a full and immediate cure. If you take the medicine you will be either fully cured or you will die in moments and further, the probability of immediate death is 90%.
No one should know better than Zizek that when a social, political, or economic system (and all three are intertwined) is dismantled too quickly, there is a 90% chance that what follows from it is far worse for most than what went before. In one of his earlier books he admits as much. In this one, he mostly fails to mention it. Capitalism as an economic theory is not the problem. The problem is today’s capitalism given the nature of human selfishness. But the problem of selfishness remains no matter what one does with present socio-political and economic foundations (and the ecological catastrophe is inevitable no matter who wins elections), and that means the outcome of breaking the system will likely be very bad for almost everyone. Zizek offers us the 10% chance of a cure and the 90% chance of death; not only soon enough but immediately! I’m not sure I want to take that bet.
I publish this review without further commentary as it is already long and covers all the bases. This review was published in July 2015. I will say that this book fits in with a number of books recently read and reviewed broadly on the subject of “the world order”, and I link those reviews here. Among this set, Bobbitt’s books stands out because he is the only one to suggest what specifically “comes next”, namely “the corporate State” in various forms.
This rather long book seems to have been written with multiple goals in mind. First the author wants to connect up evolving military technology, guns and particularly artillery, with the political evolution of states from the renaissance in Italy to modern times. In particular, evolving technology and the tactics that deployed it, fostered certain directions in political evolution primarily for the purposes of being able to afford and utilize the new technology. In between the major wars were peace settlements that ratified and solidified the evolving political forms mostly of the victors. His focus is on this evolution in Europe, but as he approaches modern times he does more and more apply his insights to an interconnected world.
The book is divided into three books. Book I focuses on the link between military history and the evolution of the modern state beginning with the French invasion of Italy in 1494. In book II the primary focus is on the nature of the peace settlements that evolved from the over-arching conflicts of various periods. In book III he sets out to describe in some detail the newest (post 20th century) form of the evolving state.
Beginning with the “princely states” of Italy, the political forms evolved over 5 centuries into “kingly states”, “territorial states”, “state-nations”, “nation-states”, and today, following the “long war” that Bobbitt describes as encompassing most of the 20th century from World War I to the end of the cold war in 1990 (with the collapse of the Soviet Union) the evolution of yet a new form, the “market-state”. In all of this description (taken up in book I). Book II reprises all of this ground, but this time focusing on the peace agreements between the great-war periods and how those agreements reflected the relations (what today we call “international law”) between the newly evolved and evolving political forms of states. Bobbitt gets into quite a bit of detail here (he is a law scholar after all) even to describing the philosophies (in a broad sense) of some of the prominant jurists (or political philosophers) of each period always focusing on how these philosophical beacons interpreted the peace agreements for specific problems emerging between states during the inter-war periods. It is one thing to establish a treaty that provides for general guidelines of behavior. It is another to interpret those guidelines as they apply to specific situations, and then yet another, even after an interpretation is broadly accepted, for evolving polities to act or chose not to act at all. Bobbitt chooses from among the luminaries examples who are both apologists for the newly evolving forms of state, and also a few polemicists. Much of this description evaluates various interpretations of what “international law” consists as compared to law as understood within the boundaries of the state.
As a descriptive work it is an excellent and well balanced read. Bobbitt is sensitive to the fact that thoughout history the political model did not evolve at an equal pace throughout Europe never mind the rest of the world. Some state forms in some locations resisted further evolutionary pressures for some time. In certain places such resistance made sense given what the earlier form encompassed geographically and ethnically, but in every case, eventually and usually by war or more technically the peace settlement after the war these entities either evolved or were broken up into geographic chunks more condusive to that evolution. Bobbitt is also very sensitive to the fact that the way this evolution did work out is not the only way it might have worked out, and this is true of both the nature of the world’s political forms as well as of present interpretations of the relations between entities internationally. I applaud him here for his balance in all of this descriptive work. He takes no interest in how things might otherwise have been, but beginning now, that is at the end of the “long war” from 1914-1990 he does seem to relish his projection of what he takes to be the newest form of large-scale polity, the “market-state”.
As above with his recognition that history might have been otherwise, his explication of the newest turn in the political screw, the evolution of the market-state (the focus of part III), is balanced by a recognition that things might go otherwise but his argument is otherwise persuasive at least as concerns broad brush strokes. As with his historical explication he is more concerned with relations between states than what is internal to the state itself, but he needs (and does) to describe something of the internal as this form is not yet as familiar as the others. He is writing in 2002, 12 years after the end of the cold war. Some of his shorter term projections as concerns the relations between states are down right prescient, while others seem entirely fanciful. Some of his prose in this section seems written almost tongue-in-cheek. But nothing that has happened in the intervening 13 years invalidates his overall vision. As in the previous 5 centuries, the broad outlines of large-scale evolution only become visible over several generations at a minimum. In between there is much room for unanticipated variation even retrogression and Bobbitt knows this well.
But Bobbitt does come off a little intoxicated by what he takes to be the next turn of the political wheel. He describes the over-all demands that will be made by and impinge upon the new “market-state” including some issues that now belong to the global community. Some of these are unique (global environmental issues and weapons of mass destruction in particular nuclear weapons to take two examples) to the modern period because they simply did not exist in the past. The particular problems that emerged between states of the prior period made no mention of genuinely “global issues” because there weren’t any. There weren’t enough people to cause genuinely global environmental issues and communications and transport technology had not yet begun to build serious economic or military dependencies that ran around the entire planet. I have to applaud the author for recognizing that the newly evolving market states are internally more inconsistent than the nation-state they are beginning to replace. He distinguishes three broad forms of market-states, the entrepenurial, the mercantile, and the managerial. The first two are genuinely novel and as such are subject to potentially more radical social disconnections than the third which is much more an amalgamation of the old and new forms, but that very blending causes (or rather is projected to have) inconsistencies of its own. The raison d’etre of the nation-state is the welfare of its citizens taken broadly (I presume) to mean that everyone who makes any effort to participate in the economy and politics of the state gains enough thereby to live something of a healthy and self-determined life. Of course even among the late 20th century society of nation-states some have succeeded at this more than others, but at least the rationale has some metaphysical basis in that individuals having self-interests are real entities. By contrast, markets are oblivious to the cares of individuals except in-so-far as enough of them succeed economically to be consumers and producers and so keep the markets functioning. Bobbitt is aware that given any of the market-state forms (except the managerial whose own internal inconsistencies stem from raised transaction costs imposed on its own market entities) some individuals will be big economic winners while many more will be net losers. Today, 13 years after writing this book, his vision here seems to be among the more prescient. As with the first two parts of the book, Bobbitt tries hard to maintain his balance. He calls [future] history as he sees it evolving and makes no attempt to be either apologist or polemicist.
Turning back to the society of states (ever his theme here) Bobbitt sees no end to conflict (war) of one kind or another. It is not his task in this book to suggest how this might be otherwise, only in this case how it might be channeled into hotter or colder forms. Inherently international markets, even cut-throat markets, function best when the social collectives that are their producers and consumers are not hurling bullets at one another. As such market-states have a greater incentive to keep conflicts between states cooler rather than hotter and this might be helpful globally even if from a perspective internal to any one state many of its citizens are worse off than they were under the older form of nation-state.
All in all a good explication tying military history (particularly European) and international relations together through the peace agreements (and the ways they were interpreted) that intervened between the cycles of political evolution.
I’m developing something of a sub-section on social, political, and economic philosophy…
I said in the review (reproduced below) that the theory of this book very much compliments that of Francis Fukuyama also reviewed here. There are other books in this arena as well, one by Phillip Bobbitt and one by Henry Kissenger. Each of these books has something to contribute to the same subject, roughly the history of nations on Earth. What I didn’t say in the review is reflected in an early marginal note that appears in this book. I wrote that this theory of Acemoglu and Robinson, given their introduction of it, seemed “trivially true”. What I meant was that given equality of other things, a nation whose political and economic institutions were more pluralistic would, on the whole, do better economically than one whose institutions were less pluralistic. I think the authors mount a powerful argument for the theory. I think they are right. But I still think that on the whole the theory is but trivially true.
To begin, the authors examine and reject a few other theories purporting to explain why some nations are wealthy and others not so wealthy. In particular the “cultural” and the “geographic” theories are of interest here. The authors very much emphasize that the institutions of which they speak emerge through history. The process can and has taken hundreds of years in some cases and the results have always been contingent meaning that only a small difference here or there might have blocked such evolution (as it has in much of the world) or reversed it even once begun (something that has also happened). The authors emphasize that small differences between institutions in different states are magnified by “critical junctures”, events like the Black Death, the discovery of the Americas, or the invention of movable-type printing.
The authors trace these differences and how different nations (in 1600 all “extractive” as the authors term it) responded politically and economically. These responses are all broadly social, and the social fault lines are reflected by culture and in turn rest on geography. In England the Magna Carta was signed in 1215. It gave the nobility a little say over what the King did, but it was hardly inclusive politically as we would understand that today. The plague followed in 1348, 133 years later and shifted things a bit more by pure chance. A greater percentage of English nobility was wiped out than was the case for example in France, Spain, or Eastern Europe.
Four hundred and seventy three years intervened between the Magna Carta and the Glorious Revolution (1688), almost nineteen human generations. The book covers much more of the intervening details for example the War of the Roses, the Cromwell experience, and the installation of William of Orange. This history is what set the culture of England and insured that the English response to events would be different from that of France or Spain.
Cultural differences are social and subject to contingent social forces. The only thing contingent about geography (used broadly and into which I am folding climate and mineral resources) is which nation ends up with which territory. Rwanda, Burundi, and Ethiopia grow delicious coffee, among the world’s best. Their coffee growing potential has nothing to do with culture and everything to do with where they are situated in the world. But none of the three have any coast. To ship their coffee to world markets each must pay transit fees to other nations in order to reach some port. If Ethiopian coffee farmers are to reap the same economic benefit as say producers in Guatemala who also grow superb coffee and do have access to a coast, Ethiopian coffee must sell for a higher price than Guatemalan coffee. Even if Ethiopian and Guatemalan economic institutions were equally inclusive (or extractive) Ethiopian farmers cannot get the same price for their coffee if they (or their elites) want to compete (and so sell for the same price) with Guatemalan farmers.
To wrap it up, nations with pluralistic institutions generally become wealthier than those without and the historical path from extractive to inclusive institutions is contingent. But among the contingencies are the culture as it evolved through many generations, and the location of the nation on Earth which limits, magnifies, or otherwise impacts the cultural contingencies and the possible wealth that might be generated under different institutions.
In my Amazon review (below) I bring up the “other end” of the whole process, something that is not the author’s concern. They are interested in why nations are wealthy (or not) now, and not what happens when even inclusive institutions go on too long. They do note that when new groups become wealthy under inclusive institutions, these become “new elites” and begin to work, politically, to constrain future inclusiveness so as to lock in their new privilege.
In the present day, such behavior in the Western and more inclusive nations has resulted in something of an equilibrium between forces, but at any given time one or the other can be ascendant. It is clear from the flattening of U.S. wages and the increase in wealth inequality since the 1970s that since that time, the push back towards exclusivity is gaining ground; an observation the authors seem to deliberately avoid making.
When I stumbled on this book I wondered how it would compare to the work of Francis Fukuyama in “Political Order and Political Decay” also reviewed. As it turns out the two works are entirely complimentary, the work of Acemoglu and Robinson riding on top of Fukuyama’s. Like Fukuyama, the author’s here recognize that a prerequisite to the political and economic orders that evolve in modern rich nations as compared to poor ones is a State, with writ over its whole territory, capable of enforcing property rights (whether they do so initially or not) and a relatively broad base of economic interests not tied solely to the land. Another prerequisite for both is the eventual evolution of a polity supporting “rule of law” which is not the same as “rule by law”. The difference is that in the former, everyone (in theory) comes under the law while in the latter the elite typically do not. This prerequisite is, in general, a consequence of the broad based economic coalition.
What begins to drive such nations is a feedback the authors call inclusive institutions, a “virtuous circle” leading to yet broader, more pluralistic political institutions and economic institutions characterized by lowered economic barriers, technological innovation, and competition that drives a broad-based increase in wealth. The authors emphasize that a virtuous evolution is not foreordained. There are always forces working to try and coerce political and economic institutions into an extractive mode in which both political and economic institutions are organized for the benefit of a few. This is, in fact, what was the case over the whole world in 1600 and has remained the case in most of the world. Though specific institutions in these countries (Russia, most of South America) have changed many times, they remain extractive and this tendency, the tendency of elites to preserve their status at the expense of everyone else the authors call a “viscous circle”.
Many nations today labor without even the prerequisite of a State writ. Such nations cannot possibly develop inclusive institutions of any kind. But even extractive institutions can grow an economy if the State writ is present and there are resources in demand by the rest of the world. Extractive societies can grow relative wealth, for example Saudi Arabia, but the authors argue (citing case after case, exploring many individual national histories) that there are severe limits to that sort of growth. Like Fukuyama these authors also recognize that even among the most inclusive nations today (mainly Western Europe, the United States, Australia, New Zealand, Japan, and a few others with but one, Botswana, in Africa) are not immune from sliding backwards, particularly as concerns economics, into more extractive forms. Fukuyama, explores how this backsliding happens at the political level, while in this book, aside from the recognition that this can happen, such backsliding in the present is not specifically addressed.
This is well written and richly detailed exploration of political and economic institutions throughout the world. No continent (save Antarctica) is ignored. Acemoglu and Robinson make a fine case, and because the actual history of nations sets these outcomes much depends on how small initial differences are magnified by events out of anyone’s control (the Plague in Europe, the discovery of the Americas, the colonial grab for Africa) they recognize the limitations of their theory as well. The historical path taken by every nation or quasi-nation is unique. Emerging into the modern period there are endless variations. China is unusual in that economic institutions appear to be liberalizing while political institutions remain purely extractive. The difference, also the case in Russia, is that the State is compelled to find some solution to competition on the world stage. Chinese and Russian economic institutions remain broadly extractive and their growth will not continue for long.
The author’s point here is well made and well established. They do not, alas, address the gorilla in the room. Even if all the world’s nations were as inclusive as the wealthiest of today’s States, there are limits to growth. One problem with open-ended competition on a level playing field is that greater wealth ultimately comes down to greater resource utilization. There is only so much to go around. But this is not their problem. The goal here is to argue the case for wealth associated with both political and economic inclusiveness. I cannot find any weakness in that argument broadly conceived as the authors portray it.
There are three books reviewed here along with links (in their titles) to the books on Amazon. All three of the reviews are also (and first) posted on Amazon. My reader might wonder why I chose to assemble these three together. The first two are pretty obvious. They are both about the present “world order”, the relation between nations and other entities with global impact. The third book is not about the world order but rather about its systematic undermining. When intelligent and fair-minded people look at what is happening in the world one cannot help but want to improve things, to smooth out conflict, keep commodity prices stable and supplies reliable, insure that people have enough to eat and clean water to drink, and so on.
Nations and other actors, in effort to improve the situation for themselves and sometimes for others, instead, make things worse. But why would anyone want, deliberately, to make things worse? No sane person would, and yet with the election of Donald Trump thanks in large part to the efforts of Steve Bannon that is precisely what is now happening. The government of the United States appears to be deliberately destabilizing the global system. Why this should be is a good question, one I hope here to answer.
To say the world situation today is precarious would surely not meet with much disagreement no matter which end of the political or social spectrum you happen to inhabit. Indeed one could argue that the world situation has been precarious for one reason or another throughout human history. But we are privileged to be living in a particularly dangerous time, and at root, population and energy access (the latter tied directly to the wealth disparity problem) are the main demographic and economic drivers of the problem. The world population continues to rise at a dangerous pace dividing the resource pie into ever smaller pieces. Yet rising populations, today all in Africa, South, and Central America are only part of the problem. In every continent other than the two just named, populations are aging and declining. Most of these are the more advanced industrial and post industrial societies on earth. Ironically, the social saftey nets for a growing cohort of elderly people in these places all depend implicitly on an also growing cohort of working age people to support them. One cannot of course have it both ways. Both cohorts cannot, together, grow indefinitely.
Dr. Kissinger’s book focuses mostly on nations. His aim is to rationalize foreign policy by, among other things, making us realize that not all nations are “like us” in wanting the same things for their peoples. He wants especially to hammer home this truth over the American tendency to idealize every international relation. Dr. Haass also recognize this fundamental difference in national interests and how their own governments view them, but he broadens his view of the pertinent actors to include non-governmental organizations both secular and religious, a role for cities, and regional resource issues: water scarcity, mineral and energy availability, climate change, and the wealth gap. Both authors address non-state-actor terrorism corroding international relations the present and future impact of technology, and changing world demographics.
Both men are, however, broadly on the same page. The trend over the last 40 years toward an integrated global economy is not enough by itself to smooth over the frictions of international relations, but it gives everyone a stake in the process of keeping the whole afloat. We cannot go backwards. First because we cannot return the world to the way it was as concerns populations, the distribution of industrial activity, and so on anyway. Too much has changed. Second, even a nuanced attempt to turn back the clock will result in huge economic dislocations everywhere and a general increase in everyone’s costs. In 1970 the “Chinese supply chain” feeding into American products hardly existed. Even if one could bring these sorts of jobs back into the United States, the people who hold the jobs in China, Vietnam, or Bangladesh (now hundreds of millions more of them than 50 years past) are not going to just go away.
What makes “The Devil’s Bargain” of interest here is that in the character of Steve Bannon is an agent bound and set to doing just this, dismantling the existing international economic system and not in any nuanced way either. Bannon wants to “burn it all down”. “Devil’s Bargain” is not a foreign policy or international affairs book like the first two. In today’s world there are people who understand that such policies will hurt millions and yet deliberately set out to do it. It illustrates how much damage can be done (it is only beginning) in a short time and how such damage degrades the prospects of many while enriching a few. A few chemicals properly mixed and put in the right place can bring down a bridge, building, or airplane. It turns out that a few people in powerful political positions, reinforcing one another’s desire to destroy those they hate, whether for petty revenge or self aggrandizement, can quickly unravel that which has (mostly) held our peace and economy together now for three generations.
What ties “Devil’s Bargain” in with the other two books is its illustration of the systematic undoing of what the first two authors take to be the only approach to maintaining peace and raising standards of living on a crowded planet. It is almost as if Bannon, reading Haass, decided to systematically do the opposite of his recommendations. Of course Bannon’s distaste for a global order in which the United States is not the sole power able to do what it wishes was settled long before Haass wrote his book. Trump was not Bannon’s first attempt to put in place a figurehead who would cater to his bigotry. He began with the “Tea Party” and Sarah Palin. But Trump proved to be the key to the political organization of the extreme right and Bannon knew an opportunity when he saw one. The book ends with Bannon’s firing less than a hundred days into the Trump administration. But Bannon chose well. Trump shares his various bigotries and did, after all, win the election. Trump is most surely continuing along a course that Bannon, if he did not set it in detail, still very much approves.
The philosophical angle here is postmodernism. “Devil’s Bargain” illustrates that lies can over power truth when a large political cohort believes that “the truth” is whatever they say it is. There is nothing historically new here. Hitler did very much the same thing as Bannon (Goebbels being “Hitler’s Bannon”) to win his election in 1932. Postmodernism may have been named in the latter part of the 20th century, but its roots go back as far as Pilate. But truth does matter. A global system built on lies cannot stand for long. We are witnessing now its accellerated destabilization. Most of us will not survive it.
Richard Haass did not reach the heights of power of a Henry Kissinger (World Order) but his work over several administrations at the State Department and other institutions, presently the president of the Council on Foreign Relations, give him as much exposure to the process of policy making and the demands of the international environment, if not the gravitas to have his ideas seriously considered, as the Secretary of State. Dr. Haass here writes from much experience. His view of the world situation is well nuanced, enough so that he knows there are problems in many places and on many levels. Some have no realistic hope of resolution any time soon.
In broad outline this book is like that of Dr. Kissinger’s. Dr. Haass begins with a broad review of how we got where we are beginning as so many of these books do with the Treaty of Westphalia in the mid 17th Century. But Haass quickly breaks things down into small chunks encompassing not only the world’s regions and nations in those regions but multiple factors cutting across those divisions. Culture, history, geography, technology, economics, identity politics, human migrations, income disparity, demographics, education, trade, and more are all examined singularly and with regard to their interacting impacts. Haass appears to understand both the central importance of the United States (the world’s largest single economic and military power), and the limits of even an “engaged America” on the trajectory of world affairs.
Dr. Kissinger made broad recommendations and so does Dr. Haass. In fact the two men are very much in line with one another broadly speaking. But Dr. Haass also makes numerous specific recommendations some going some way towards resolving issues, others merely managing the presently unresolveable. His recommendations are all thoughtfully helpful. Some are broad, some very narrow, all difficult to achieve in the present world. Haass’ politics appears to be a little more conservative than mine. On the subject of income disparity for example he says that [absurd] concentrations of wealth are not in themselves bad, the problem rather is that there are too many people with too little. It’s hard to argue with the last part, but for some reason he does not connect up the impossibility of spreading the wealth as long as so few individuals and corporations hoard (and he admits hide) most of it.
On the whole he and I agree, cooperation is, barring gross violations of human dignity, better than competition and conflict. His recommendations are mostly common sense. If any half of his recommendations were to be implemented I’m sure the world would be a better place. The chance that even some half of them will come to any fruition however is almost zero. Even before the election of Donald Trump. This book was published in January 2017 just prior to Trump’s inauguration. Even then, the global situation was deteriorating (had been for some years) with competition more and more coming to replace cooperation. My Kindle edition (not sure of the other formats) has, in addition an afterword written some ten months into Trump’s presidency. As Haass ticks off Trump’s policy implementations the reader cannot help but note that not only are things getting worse but now at an accelerated rate, and not only globally, but also inside the United States. Trump is undoing even that which, however imperfectly, was helpful prior to his election. With almost 9 billion people on the Earth, “globalism is not a choice, but a fact”. We will not survive without major conflict for much longer under the present global effort to dismantle it.
The book is a good and comprehensive take on what should be done, what must be done, and what America could do to stave off disaster. Not only are we not going in the right direction, we are very much deliberately going in the wrong one.
Surely there are few people in the world more qualified to write a book about geopolitics, present or historical, than Henry Kissinger. For a time of some 20 years he was directly involved in the decisions of American presidents on this very subject. Taking a broader view, Dr. Kissinger is involved in his subject (as I understand it even speaking to D. Trump since his election) even today and going back some 50 or more years!
Without being too long, the book surveys the history of historical political orders in Asia, the Middle East, Africa, South America and Europe both Eastern and Western. He pays particular attention to the European “Peace of Westphalia” following the 30-years war in 1648. There is a theme here. Though there have been many European wars (and revolutions) since the 17th century they all occurred in a Westphalian context. Sometimes the context is respected, and sometimes violated, but even in the latter case, the peace process following the wars has either returned to a Wesphalian context and been, at least for a substantial time, successful in preserving the peace, or it ignored and violated that context leading rapidly to another war. The Marshall Plan following WWII an example of a return to Westphalian principles also the preservation of the French State after the depredations of Napoleon. By contrast, in contravention of those principles, French and English retribution against Germany following WWI resulted rather rapidly in WWII.
Kissinger’s focus on Westphalia sets up the problems he sees with Europe’s and America’s relation to the rest of the world. From the Western vantage point we look out on a world of nation-states and think to ourselves that as different as Asia, the Middle East, and Sub-Saharan Africa might be, they all, in the end, want to preserve their statehood in relation to other states. One of Kissinger’s observations is that this is not at all the case. China for example sees itself as the premier culture on Earth and lives within the present Westphalian system of nations for reasons of practical accommodation. The Middle East, and by extension the whole of the Islamic World, sees itself as the only legitimate and righteous inheritor of the entire world order!
In Islam the Westphalian matrix is the most jumbled with nations like Saudi Arabia and Iran accommodating it for practical reasons, while others, particularly non-state actors, try actively to undermine it leaving thousands dead in their wake. Sub-Saharan Africa (with the exception of South Africa) is yet another story. The nations there are the result of recently (20th century) abandoned colonialism and though nominally nations, are riddled with leadership interested in little more than their own personal aggrandizement. Failed or failing states cannot participate coherently in such world order as presently exists let alone contribute to something better.
Kissinger’s first main point is that it is a mistake to continue treating with these nations AS IF they implicitly accepted the Westphalian context of nation states all “getting along”. This doesn’t mean we can stop working with these nations, but we have to be smarter about it and stop assuming they want merely to be like the Western world. Kissinger’s other main point is that technology, the global issues it has already wrought (climate change for example), and the issues that have yet to fully manifest (mostly related to computers and biology), are stressing the existing system to a degree unparalleled in history. One is left with the impression that it is already too late. The existing “world order” has already become too inflexible, its momentum too great, to apply, and ENFORCE, global solutions to global issues. Kissinger doesn’t say disaster is inevitable, but I do not see how any other conclusion is possible.
In roughly the middle of the book Kissinger spends some time on the global effect of U.S. foreign policy from Theodore Roosevelt to Barrack Obama. He makes a number of observations here about the difference between the historical U.S. approach to foreign policy versus European statecraft, and notes of course that the foreign policy pendulum in the United States has shifted from episodic engagement to continuous engagement following the second world war. The force of U.S. engagement is derived from both economic and military power and importantly our willingness to use the latter now and then, though as it turns out mostly with inconclusive results.
I notice he elides his own personal involvement in what might be termed “nations behaving badly” back in the 1970s and 1980s, but aside from this lacuna his point, his final point in the whole book, is that whatever else it does, the United States cannot now withdraw from the world order, even such as it is, without destabilizing everything! This book was written in 2014 the middle of Obama’s second term. I wonder what he thinks now?
This is a book about how and why Donald Trump won the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Primarily it all comes down to three people: Trump himself, his instincts regarding his base, Bob Mercer (and his daughter) and his money, and Steve Bannon, the central figure whose decades long ambition to see the United States rid itself of anything smacking of a global brotherhood of nations (not to mention a world at peace) manifest itself in all of his projects effectively harnessed to elect Donald Trump.
This is a book about Steve Bannon. There is a bit of biographical history, but nothing fully explains his turn to virulent nationalism made in his younger years. Events, like the 1979 Iran hostage crisis, that precipitated the turn yes, but many people were exposed to that and did not become xenophobes. Green gives us Bannon’s fascination with fringe 19th century philosophers coupled with wide reading of history. Bannon became the quintessential postmodernist man. No truth was worth preserving if it stood against a political victory for his views however intolerant and hurtful they might be.
Bannon had been acting on the far right political fringe long before he met Trump. In the early stages of the 2016 election cycle he wasn’t particularly a Trump fan. But he came to see Trump as the closest thing to a manifestation of his (Bannon) vision of an intolerant, isolated America, and as Bannon saw his opportunity he took it and carried it through. Evil people are not, after all, automatically dumb.
By the time the campaign really got going in early 2016, Bannon had four institutions under his control and/or guidance, all directed toward defeating Hillary Clinton and elevating Donald Trump. To be sure, Hillary was not the best Democrat to go against Trump. This had much to do with various corruption scandals (some legitimate, many made up by her haters since the 1990s) in which she and her husband were constantly embroiled. None of this would have mattered as much against any opponent other than Trump because the others would have distanced themselves from Bannon’s lies (every national politician has some corruption in their background somewhere) while Trump embraced and amplified them. No one other than Bannon realized how much a significant cohort of long-time Democrats disliked Hillary in particular.
Bannon had a four pillar strategy, all funded by Mercer money. First, Breitbart News, the pro-Trump propaganda machine. Second, the Government Accountability Institute, presided over by Peter Schweizer author of the devastating “Clinton Cash”. The GAI was Bannon’s anti-Clinton machine and to Bannon’s advantage there was real dirt to be found. Third was a film company Glittering Steel, a minor player in the drama, and the fourth Cambridge Analytica whose knowledge of tens of millions of racists and xenophobes, Trump’s base, fed exploitable data to the other three pillars. These four organizations together brought Hillary down, her own campaign utterly failing to realize how much anti-Clinton invective existed among democratic voters, with Comey’s revelation in the closing days of the campaign putting the final nail in her coffin.
Like Wolff’s “Fire and Fury” and Woodward’s “Fear”, “Devil’s Bargain” is a superb piece of investigative journalism. But it is more. It is a dissection of a political campaign achieving its ends mostly by ignoring truth and firing up tens of millions of Americans whose focus in life is to hate anyone who isn’t them. It details a strategy that has to be the envy of every autocrat on the planet.
My interest here in this blog is mostly ontology, epistemology, philosophy of mind, and religion. I’ve paid little attention to how my own views of these philosophical sub-disciplines, particularly the last, impact (or should impact) the social, economic, and political worlds in which we live. In particular what are the social and political consequences in the present-day of the theology sketched here?
We live in topsy-turvy times in which political and social thinking has gravitated to extremes. In particular, among the many seemingly contradictory political and social (not to mention economic) ideas seriously taken by some is the idea that God would support, or can be invoked to justify bigotry and socio-political intolerance. I am careful to say God above because religion as a socio-political institution, physical churches, congregations, and so forth have (though not universally) often advocated political and social ideas that are obviously in opposition to “the will of God”.
There is nothing historically novel in this. The history of religious institutions worldwide is steeped in violence sanctioned by the institution itself. To be sure, in all of this history and within all religious institutions there were other voices, people who stood against institutional intolerance intellectually and in theory, though often having little effect on the social and political course of the institution. But that was then.
Violence remains today. In the Western world this strikes us as obvious about institutional Islam. The Quran is ambiguous as concerns treatment of “apostate Moslems” and non-Moslems. There is no such ambivalence in Christianity portraying as a Father of the individual and all individuals equally. This portrayal is unique in Christianity. Hindu God’s have only occasional and accidental relations to individuals. Buddhism rejects the reality of the individual itself and in its origins was the only one of the world’s presently “great religions” that was strictly speaking Godless. Islam and Judaism, occasionally speaking to the individual, are oriented towards a “God of the tribe”. Christianity (broadly speaking) is the only one of the three monotheisms to teach, without equivocation, that God is the Father of the person.
If God is the Father of the person, he must be the Father of all persons equally. The relationship of Fatherhood is direct and with literally every person on Earth (I think also with people living on planets throughout the universe). If God is infinite and unified his relationship to every personal being in the universe must be the same. The implications of Christian theology lead invariably to this conclusion and even more so the implications of the theology sketched in my Prolegomena linked above. God cannot care about the various political orders that characterize our world (“My Kingdom is not of this world”) though some are more consistent with personal sovereignty (especially as concerns religion itself) than others. Importantly we do not always know, though we always think we know, which are the better ones other than by viewing the life of their citizens over generations of time.
A “true Christian” has to believe that every individual is a “child of God” and should treat them as a sibling. That means Christians should not only be free of hate, but also support an international order promoting life as a brotherhood worldwide. This does not mean we can do away with the present, often hate-inducing political order. Not until everyone (or almost everyone) in the world accepts the truth of universal brotherhood. Today, even those who do accept this truth must sometimes defend, violently, their way of live against threats from those who do not.
The “true Christian” is not like the “true Scotsman”. A Scotsman is one who is born in Scotland. Being born somewhere has no necessary bearing on any other aspect of individual character. This is not the case with a “true Christian”. Being a “true Christian” has nothing to do with national, cultural, or social identity; with where you are born. A person is not born a “true Christian”. A person becomes a “true Christian” by freely accepting and acknowledging, and not merely theoretically, their individual relationship to God the Father through Christ. One cannot be a “true Christian” without accepting, by an act of one’s own will, the actual and not merely theoretical relationship to God, of all persons on Earth. It is not enough merely to be a participant in the institution of the Christian church!
Equality as a person before God does not translate into equality in any other respect. The American declaration of independence’s assertion, that “all people are created equal” is misleading. “Nature and nurture” both ensure that people are not equal in any way other than their relationship to God. But if we are all equal, even in only that one way, we must therefore be related to one another as siblings in a universal family. It is logically inconsistent to assert that you believe in a universal God, and not accept that every person on Earth is a brother or sister. In particular, in the Christian interpretation of this relationship, what is asked of the believer by God, is that they love their siblings! Every person is a person no matter what their race, nationality, sexuality, economic status, and so on. It should therefore be logically impossible to be a xenophobic, homophobic, racist, or nationalist Christian!
Yet if all of this is so, how is it that today, in America, religion is used as a political and social tool in support of a xenophobic, racist, nationalist, and otherwise intolerant right-wing agenda? How do millions of people who declare their belief in a universal God come to support political agendas that are plainly intolerant of individuals for reasons having nothing to do with their personal relationship to God? How do millions of individuals who claim to believe in a “Christian God” come to hate classes of individuals who are obviously persons and so related to God in exactly the way they are?
There are many reasons in the end all resting on the psychology of individuals. Socially, and at its extreme, this psychology can be manipulated to result in a literal depersonalization (open or hidden) of individuals in the despised group; literally coming to believe they are not people. But my focus here is on the role (having an influential bearing on the psychology) of the distinction between religion as that orientation towards one’s individual relationship to God (and by extension all other individuals) and religion conceived as an institution, a church, or as an individual relation to such an institution; being a member of a church. Notice that being born into a Catholic family doesn’t count here. There are many such individuals who are atheists or have elected a religious path other can Catholicism. What counts is what an individual, at sometime in their life (perhaps many times) chooses.
This is not to say the “institutional Church” and the “will of God” cannot be aligned. In “Origins of the Political Order”, Francis Fukuyama credits the Catholic Church with the founding of “rule of law” in Europe. A transcendental God grounded the idea that kings, popes, and peasants, all “equal in the eyes of God”, should be subject to the same rules. That God’s law covered all was accepted in theory beginning in Roman times. God’s law, not its interpretation but the fact of it, aligns the institution of the Church, and the “will of God” as understood by a modern theology. Fukuyama notes that only cultures having a “transcendental religion” (Christian, Hindu, Moslem) ever developed the rule of law idea. China for example, where neither Confucianism nor Buddhism is transcendental, never developed the idea that political elites should be subject to the same rules as everyone else.
The Protestant Reformation changed the view of whom may legitimately interpret Christian (Biblical) teachings, but not the basic insight that all individuals are equally loved by God. Fukuyama again credits the Reformation with the relatively rapid development of democratic accountability in Denmark, Sweden, and Norway. Why? Because the requirement that each individual become his or her own interpreter of the Bible drove the Church to make the entire population literate, peasants included! But Protestantism did reintroduce another idea in conflict with this universality and that became the seed of the present contradictory relation between some Christian institutions and God’s universality. Virtually all the present American “religious right” are Protestant of one sort or another.
Certain Protestant denominations began to connect material (economic and social) success to “being favored by God”. This belief also influenced the Hebrews of Jesus’ time despite the Old Testament’s “Book of Job” explicitly rejecting any such idea. The Hebrews ignored the lesson of Job as do modern Protestants, but the problem goes deeper than the merely economic. The conflation of spirit and economic success leads to the idea that some individuals are favored by God over others and this begins the slippery slope from economics to social intolerance. If God favors certain individuals, he must withdraw favor from others and from this a small step to justified bigotry!
Human emotions and attitudes about the humanity of others (their worthiness as brothers) range from the inclusive to the outright exclusion of everyone not a member of one’s favored group. Of course institutional religion is not the only source of bigorty. There are atheists on both the political left and right. But if, given any leanings to bigotry, one joins in the activities of a physical church whose members are also intolerant, then religion, creedal dogma as taught to, and accepted by, that congregation, can justify bigotry on grounds of Biblical interpretation. Is every such teaching in direct conflict with the universality of God’s love as taught by Jesus? Yes it is, but some Christians (and Protestants are not alone here) become convinced that “universal love” applies only between the members of the “in group”! This is a false teaching but we find it everywhere reinforcing existing prejudice.
What about religious-institutional support of international conflict? How many times do we hear religion invoked in service of “the nation” and in opposition to other nations? Much money flowed from Irish Catholics in the United States to the IRA, overtly supporting Irish terrorism in the 1970s. In the present-day the world is divided into nations some of whom emerged over centuries, while colonial powers, the older nations, cast others together. The problem with the present order is that each nation represents itself to the world as a sovereign entity having rights to global resources. But the world’s resources are limited and if through disproportionate economic or military power one or a few nations act to pull resources towards themselves leaving other nations, their people, with too little.
Part of the problem over all is the number of people trying to live on the world, but this is not a problem any subgroup of nations can solve. More than half the world’s nations are demographically aging. The rest have more youth than can be productively employed at least under present political and socio-economic conditions. In today’s global environment, it is fundamentally bigotry that prevents rational, voluntary redistribution and retraining of excess population from one part of the world to another.
To the bigotry directed at people down the block or in the next town is added the bigotry of nationalism. Nationalism is the idea that not only do the people of my nation deserve a proper share of the world’s resources (morally defensible depending on the share), but it is also a nation’s right to set those standards for itself and to take, or preserve their self-determined share by force of arms if necessary. In today’s world this is nowhere better illustrated than in the South China Sea. A dozen nations should be sharing resources claimed more or less exclusively by China. Modern wars between nations are always about resources in one-way or another even if resources are not always a war’s immediate trigger.
In modern times, nationalism is the disease that leads whole peoples to war. Like bigotry, nationalism need not connect up to religion. But as with bigotry, [some] religious institutions support nationalism on grounds the people of some nations are favored by God while others are, if not condemned, then less worthy. The logical contradiction between nationalism and the demands of religious universalism is identical with that between universalism and bigotry based on ethnicity, sexuality, and so on.
So we find ourselves a culture in which [some] religious institutions come to be in opposition to religion as such. They teach false doctrine, the “white race” or “straight people”, or “Americans”, are the “children of God”. The broader Church should publicly distance itself from intolerant or nationalist congregations unless it too bears false teaching. Too often it does not. Certainly not in Islam, but also within some Protestant communities in the United States and around the world. Those false teachings have come to be widely enough accepted that condemnation by the remaining universalist members of the community would result in serious economic and social dislocation for the wider Church. Here the social and economic realities of a material institution come to conflict directly with its spiritual mission.
I speak here largely of the cultural milieu in the United States. In his recent (September 2018) “Like a Thief in Broad Daylight” Slavoj Zizek notes that in Europe this overt conflict between Christian Universalism and intolerance manifests less in Christian intolerance than in a retreat from Christianity back to paganism! On one level this makes sense. There is no logical contradiction between bigotry (or nationalism) and paganism, but paganism doesn’t help craft solutions to what are very much planet-wide problems. It lacks, among other things, any global value compass.
This then is the negative side of our present. There are religious institutions that falsely link God’s love to a particular subset of individuals whether a race, nation, or other distinction in social identity. What then is the positive side? What politics, what political order should religious institutions support? What political order would be consistent with the universality of God’s love for every individual?
Begin with the sociological end point of such a world. What must God want? Some part of this can be easily drawn from a first principles theology. Every individual on the planet would love and treat like a brother every other individual with whom they interact directly or indirectly. They would do this of their own free will because they know that God loves each of them and that loving one another is what God wants us, freely, to do. When you love someone, you want to do good to them. Loving God is no different, but there isn’t any good we can do to God directly. He is infinite and complete. He needs nothing from us. What he requests, seemingly, what would be “good to him”, is that we freely choose to love his other children, our brothers.
Love here is not some abstract notion, but manifests in well motivated executive administration, economic fairness, and so on. The problem is not Capitalism as the left continues to insist. The problem with Capitalism is the capitalist who is not yet motivated to act fairly and preserve a level field for all. True, today, no one or even a few capitalists can act against the tide without suffering competitive disadvantage, but this will not be the case in the future when capitalists view their mission first as service to the global community and only secondarily in profit terms.
Obviously such a spiritually advanced world would have no bigotry, no crime, and no war. It would not merely suppress their exhibition, there would be none to be exhibited! For this to happen, even to approximate it (for example a war-free world in which not literally every person loved every other, a world in which there might, for example, be some criminal behavior), the peoples of the world would have to view themselves as “people of Earth” as well as members of other subpolities.
The division of executive powers in the United States serves as a good analog. The people of Iowa think of themselves as Iowan, but also as Americans. The Federal government controls the armed forces, and regulates trade between the States. Iowa, despite having a “national guard”, does not scheme to take land from Nebraska. At the same time, the existence of the Federal administration does not obviate State governments any more than State governments obviate county and city governments. All these levels of government are needed for the administration of a large polity like the U.S.
A world without bigotry demands the free-willed transformation of individuals, billions of them. But there are not billions of national governments with armed forces of their own, only a couple of hundred. To achieve a war-free world, even long before individual bigotry, crime, economic unfairness, and other socio-political problems disappear, it is necessary only that armed forces of all nations be given over to the control of some supra-sovereignty that encompasses the planet. In short a world government. Such a supra-sovereignty would not only control all the world’s armed forces, but also, like the U.S. Federal government regulate relations between nations. There would still be need for national and subnational polities, States or provinces, local governments, and so on.
Nations claim a sovereignty that is a fiction. They can be attacked physically, digitally, and economically. Their currencies can be debased not only by bad decisions nationally, but by decisions taken in other nations! By insisting on the national right to sovereignty war between nations is periodically certain. International relations between national States with armies are inherently unstable because no entity exists that can allot resources between them.
If a world government existed, there would be no one left to fight, no “national currency” to devalue. The world-government would be genuinely sovereign. This being the case, why would any need for “armed forces” remain? The reason has to do with the process of getting from where we are now to a fully sovereign world government. There will come a time in which most of the world does vest control of trade relations and armed force in a supra-sovereignty, but there remain nations with their own armed forces who might refuse to join.
This is no different from the early times of evolving national organizations from smaller polities who used force of arms to resist (ultimately unsuccessfully) emerging national polities. Older and less inclusive social organizations, bands to tribes, tribes to limited states, limited states (even cities) to larger states, have always resisted and still resist the evolution of wider polities.
Once the entire world is genuinely on-board, once it becomes unthinkable that a nation, small group of nations, or collections of individuals, would raise their own armies and seek to break away from or resist belonging to the world government, then need for any international armed force fades. Eventually even police forces also fade as individuals of the population advance further towards the social endpoint.
The question posed above was: how is it that today, in America, we have a situation in which employs religion as a political and social tool in support of a xenophobic and otherwise intolerant right-wing agenda? I have not concerned myself with bigots and nationalists who are not also religionists. As with paganism, there is no logical inconsistency between atheism and nationalism even if the latter remains a bad idea and always, eventually, leads to war unless nationalistic leanings are curbed before war grows imminent.
Nor is it necessary for religious institutions to address politics directly. A “religious institution” may abjure politics altogether. Of course the institution’s participating individuals are immerged in the politics of their locale as well as the nation-state. Churches (congregations or taken more broadly) have in theory only a spiritual mission, to help the individual believer to understand and freely choose to do God’s will, which at the cost of repetition can only be to love one another.
Because individuals are political, politics always affects the relationships between individuals in any congregation, and their ministers are no less immune to this effect. If a side must be taken, that side most aligned with God’s equal love for all, the side that most treats everybody involved like a brother in a loving family is the only choice consistent with God’s universality. Any church that, having taken a side, takes the side of intolerance and isolation, of nationalistic “us vs them”, that does not say to its members “go and love them also”, is from the viewpoint of the “spiritual mission”, in contravention of the will of God!
But if Churches can, in theory, ignore politics, if they can ignore nationalism, they cannot ignore individual intolerance. If the institution’s mission is to teach love they cannot support, even covertly, intolerance between any class of individuals. Our present situation regarding institutional religion is ultimately the result of the failure of those institutions to stick to the mission of teaching that God’s love is universal.
So what are we to do about this? From the viewpoint of alignment with Deity, it is never wrong to continue the mission as best can be managed in circumstances. Become an institution or take part in an institution that respects the relationship between man and God and so man and man. Is that going to solve our problem here? Is that going to convince religious institutions now on the wrong road to change their path?
History does not bode well for any such optimistic outlook. Intolerant people who yet think of themselves as religious will gravitate to congregations of like-minded individuals. Values reinforcement is an outgrowth of congregating (religious or not), and not limited to reinforcement of positive values. Any student of history will cite many examples down through the recorded centuries lastly ending in the stance the Hebrew Sanhedrin took on Jesus. With everything else Jesus is the quintessential demonstration to the universe that once history has set a course, once enough men are willfully and in concert arrayed against love, no amount of the Father’s love will prevent the socio-political disaster at that point made certain. Forty years intervened between the death of Jesus on the cross and the Roman destruction of the second temple. Jewish nationalism, already plain in Jesus time and a factor in his persecution, made the event of the final destruction forty years later certain despite the voices of universalism in the expanding Christian message [see note below about Paul].
There are now, in this world, more than enough of the intolerant and hateful, religious or otherwise, to have set the historical course for the next few decades, perhaps a century or more. It might yet be another thousand years, or five thousand, before enough people wake up to the reality of the need to take the compass given by values seriously. But if the message is not carried through that interval, there will be nothing to awaken to. I do not know if the progressively polarizing world will result in another global war, but some global catastrophe, ecological or economic, probably both, is going to sweep over the human race in the next hundred, or maybe only twenty, years.
Will the human race extinguish itself? No, unless possibly the disaster becomes global thermonuclear war. Will the promised land of love manifest after this next global catastrophe? Not likely. There will be yet something else, and then another disaster, and so on, until such time as a true global government evolves. Only then will conditions make the further evolution of universal brotherhood possible. Only one thing can be said with certainty. God’s will, the evolution of universal love on this and every other world, must eventually, in some distant future, come to pass.
Note: If anybody, Paul set the stage for the Western conflict between institution and universal relationship by aligning his version of Jesus’ message with the existent Roman “Cult of Mithras”, the largest institutionalized “Roman Church” of that time. That institution became the Catholic Church and for the sake of secular power, the message altered from the brotherhood of all human beings to the brotherhood of Catholics.