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TagMetaphysical capitalism

intellectuals and influencers

Both the public intellectual and the public influencer play an instrumental role in shaping cultural ideals and tying them to the individual’s sense of self. When the public intellectual was ascendant, cultural ideals revolved around the public good. Today, they revolve around the consumer good. The idea that the self emerges from the construction of a set of values and beliefs has faded. What the public influencer understands more sharply than most is that the path of self-definition now winds through the aisles of a cultural supermarket. We shop for our identity as we shop for our toothpaste, choosing from a wide selection of readymade products. The influencer displays the wares and links us to the purchase, always with the understanding that returns and exchanges will be easy and free.

This from Nick Carr is short and sharp and smart. Please read the whole thing, especially the last paragraph, which ends on a zinger. (I feel zinged, anyway.) Nick’s post is a useful contribution to the understanding of what I’ve been calling metaphysical capitalism, which is the transformation of the commodified self into a religion.

Also, this gives me the opportunity to answer a question some people have been asking me: What exactly is the narrative promoted by the reporting of New York Times that I dislike so much? The short answer is: metaphysical capitalism. For the reporters on the Times, those who tell me that “I am my own” are on the side of the angels, while those who cast doubt on that proposition are to be cast into outer darkness where there is wailing and gnashing of teeth. (Thus genuinely Left movements get only marginally better treatment in the Times than religious conservatives.) That is the primary means by which Times reporters evaluate everything from political candidates to religious organizations to movies and books. There is not even the slightest attempt in those pages to be fair to people who question self-ownership, for what fellowship has light with darkness?

  1. The one central and indispensable axiom of metaphysical capitalism is “I am my own” — I am a commodity wholly owned and operated by myself in service to my own interests, as defined by me. I am my own store of capital.
  2. Therefore, the socio-political order is to be evaluated strictly in terms of whether it helps or hinders my autonomy.
  3. Also therefore, questions of political economy are empirical and pragmatic rather than dogmatic. Should I determine that the pursuit of metaphysical capitalism is best aided by economic socialism, then a socialist I shall become.

Kathryn Tanner’s altar call

Consider this a follow-up to my recent posts on metaphysical capitalism and some stories about the commodification of emotion and connection — and also a kind of pendant to Derek Thompson’s story in the Atlantic on the religion of workism. This one’s gonna have some long quotations.

Here’s how Kathryn Tanner describes her task in her new book Christianity and the New Spirit of Capitalism:

Whether amenable to capitalism at its start or not, my own Christian commitments as I hope to show are inimical to the demands of capitalism now. I am critical of the present spirit of capitalism because I believe my own, quite specific Christian commitments require it. But I also suggest over the course of the chapters to come that the present-day organization of capitalism is deserving of such criticism whatever one’s religious commitments, because of its untoward effects on persons and populations, its deforming effects on the way people understand themselves and their relations with others. Every way of organizing economic life is flawed. Besides having especially egregious faults (relative to other ways that capitalism has been organized, this one foments, for example, extreme income/wealth inequality, structural under- and unemployment, and regularly recurring boom/bust cycles in asset values), what is unusual about the present system is the way its spirit hampers recognition of those faults. The present-day spirit of capitalism needs to be undermined, therefore, in order for the current system to be problematized — seen as a problem amenable to solution, an object of possible criticism requiring redress. And in order for that to happen, in order for the spirit of present-day capitalism to be effectively undermined, it needs to be met, I suggest, by a counter-spirit of similar power. Without the need any longer of religious backing, capitalism may now have the power itself to shape people in its own image; its conduct-forming spirit may now be its own production, in other words. But as one of the few alternative outlooks on life with a capacity to shape life conduct to a comparable degree, religion might remain a critical force against it.

That bolded sentence is a reminder that, as I often say, “the liberal order catechizes,” and that it will catechize us right out of Christianity altogether if we don’t provide what I call a “counter-catechesis,” a radically different “conduct-forming spirit.” Tanner makes a very similar argument at length.

In so doing, she repeatedly reminds us that Christianity is, among other things, a counter-economics. Everyone knows how thoroughly economic language is woven into the fabric of the Christian story: we are bought with a price (agorazo); we are bought out of slavery (exagorazo). Though Tanner doesn’t do exegesis in her book, it’s clear that she wants her readers to understand how completely the biblical picture reorients, or ought to reorient, our self-understanding. In a capitalist order it becomes easy, even natural, to think of God as a metaphysical banker, keeping our moral accounts as thoroughly as the hidden gods of capitalism track our FICO scores. But if we can escape that tendency, if we can understand God as the one who has delivered us from bondage, then “rather than being tallied against one’s account, one can be assured one’s sins are forgiven, their burden erased, when casting them upon Christ’s mercy in confession. One can honestly admit faults without fear, assured of God’s mercy in Christ. It is not the lapse that threatens to separate one from Christ but the refusal to confess it, out of fear and a lack of trust in God’s graciousness.”

But if we cannot manage this reorientation of our understanding, then we can come to be terrified of the future and at the same time confined to an understanding of the future as a mere continuation of what now exists:

In order to profit from the difference between present and future, or at least to prevent it from doing any harm, one employs financial instruments that collapse the future present — that is, what the future will turn out to be — into the present future — that is, into the present view of the future…. By virtue of such a collapse of future into present, the future one anticipates loses its capacity to surprise; the future to come simply reduces to the future it makes sense to expect given present circumstances. Those circumstances themselves become a kind of self-enclosed world, as one learns to hope for nothing more from the future than what the given world’s present limits allow, what it is reasonable to expect from within them, assuming their continuance.

To live within these constraints — constraints which our capitalist order teaches us we must think about constantly if we are to be rational actors and responsible citizens — is to be deprived of both imagination and hope. What is required, for those of us so bound, is to be redeemed from this bondage, to be bought ought of slavery to it, and that requires conversion.

So I was delighted to find, at one important juncture in this book, this liberal Episcopalian giving her readers what amounts to an altar call. I’ll close with that call:

The present does not, however, become urgent here due to scarcity. One has everything one needs — more than one needs — to turn one’s life around: the grace provided in Christ. In marked contrast to the efficiency-inducing scarcities of finance-dominated capitalism, it is the very fulsomeness of the provisions for conversion that makes the present an urgent matter, an opportunity to be seized with alacrity and put to good use. There is no point in looking longingly to any past or future with the capacity to make things easier: the time is ripe for action right now and never has been or will be any better. Delaying a present decision to turn one’s life around, and neglecting to make the best of what is currently on offer out of a distracted sense of what was or might be, suggest one is simply never likely to turn one’s life around, no matter how many times one is offered the opportunity to do so in the future. Any such distraction from the present moment is always available as an excuse in the future, so as to produce thereby a never-ending deferral of decision. The present is urgent here not because the opportunities of the moment might be lost but because they are just so good, so perfectly suited to the predicament one is in and the needs one has, because of their not-to-be-passed-up character, so to speak. Instead of being here today and gone tomorrow, what allows one to turn one’s life around in the present — the grace of Christ — is permanently on offer. It has no fleeting character. What prompts one to seize it right away is not the fear of missed opportunity, then, but the immediate, overwhelming attractiveness of the offer…. No failings in the past or present can disrupt the efficacy of a grace designed specifically to save sinners…. There is thus no point in harping on the past or worrying about the future — the present is one’s only concern. Not because one cannot do anything about past mistakes or about an uncertain future — because neither is under one’s control — but because one can let go of the past without consequence — one’s sins are forgiven — and because the future will never be any more threatening than the present is. Contrary to the Stoic-inflected temporal sensibility of financial players, the present is no more under one’s control than the past was or the future will be: at every moment in time, one is enabled to turn oneself to God only by God’s grace and not by one’s own power.

Preach it, sister!

An addendum to the previous post: Not many people on the left seem to realize it, but the metaphysical capitalism I described in my previous post is fundamentally incompatible with a socialist political economy. According to the gospel of “I am my own,” everything around me — the social world and the material world, the whole shebang — is best described as a body of resources for me to exploit in my quest for self-realization. But “exploiting,” then, is precisely what I will do, and if we all do that then the world around us will be devastated — or rather, further devastated. This is why the details (such as they are) of the Green New Deal are so fanciful: its crafters have to imagine a future in which we save the planet without circumscribing our own liberties and possibilities. It’s a perfect illustration of something Paul Farmer said a long time ago now: that white liberals “think all the world’s problems can be fixed without any cost to themselves.” That hasn’t changed, and won’t change. But if the left can find a way to combine metaphysical capitalism with a socialist political economy it will sweep all before it.

on cultural socialism and metaphysical capitalism

My buddy Rod Dreher is talking a lot these days about “cultural socialism.” I wish he wouldn’t. Rod believes that the term “cultural socialism” is justified because, like actual socialism, it’s about the redistribution of resources — in this case the resources of access, prestige, etc. But if so, then much of McCarthyism was cultural socialism. McCarthy sought to pull down the privilege of communist fellow travelers in cultural high places (Hollywood) and replace them with God-fearing Americans. The social wing of Wilberforce’s movement, which sought to drive slave-owners from polite society while bringing in formerly excluded people like Olaudah Equiano: cultural socialism!

If Rod places a lot of emphasis on this term, then here’s a preview of the first review of his forthcoming book: “We’ve already read this book, under a slightly different title: Jonah Goldberg wrote it and called it Liberal Fascism. This is just Goldberg’s idea but with a hat-tip to the alt-right’s cries against ‘cultural Marxism.’”

Rod absolutely right, and right in a very important way, that the strategies that Christians and conservatives and, in general non-socialists used to survive under Soviet-sponsored socialism are likely to become immensely relevant to many American Christians and conservatives in the coming years. (I may say more about that in another post.) But that doesn’t mean that what we’re battling against is a form of socialism, cultural or otherwise. I would argue rather that it’s the ultimate extension of the free market — a kind of metaphysical capitalism. The gospel of the present moment is, as I have frequently commented, “I am my own.” I am a commodity owned solely by myself; I may do with this property whatever I want and call it whatever I want; any suggestion that my rights over myself are limited in any way I regard as an intolerable tyranny. That some kind of redistribution of access/prestige/attention and even economic resources might be needed to bring this gospel to those who have not previously been able to enjoy its benefits should not obscure for us what the core proclamation really is.

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