It has now been slightly more than two weeks since the recent, paradigm-shattering Presidential election in the United States, and everyone in America by now, it seems, has had their chance to express themselves by a variety of means approximating rival gang members thrown together into the mosh pit of a death metal concert.
Whether California eventually secedes from the union in the post-post-secular variant of the New Age prophesies abounding some decades ago about the Golden State sliding off into the ocean after an apocalyptic earthquake, or the Alt-Right stages an outraged million-man – and I do mean “man” – march on the White House to force President-Elect Trump to keep his promise of prosecuting Hilary Clinton and deporting her back to the Ozarks, it is becoming clear that, as Dylan once mildly put it, “the times they are a-changin’.”
How they are changing is not as obvious as the legions of pundits and armchair academic opinionators think. What Trump actually does when he takes the oath of office in January looms not quite as large when compared to what may be going on as part of the global background picture. And since Trump has either rejected or downplayed in a very short time many of his most inflammatory campaign promises, which has stiffened the backbone of so many “never Trump” diehards at both ends of the political spectrum, it is perhaps time for thoughtful observers to get over what was actually said during the run-up to November 8 and begin focusing on how certain seemingly game-changing political events of the past year, starting with the Brexit vote in the United Kingdom, comprise a broader and more enigmatic “symptomatology” of a planet sliding into crisis.
No, I’m not talking about global warming or any looming ecological disaster, though that could very well be in the not-so-distant offing. I allude to the other the world-encompassing system that derives etymologically from the same Greek word (oikos=house), i.e., the global eco-nomy.
Democratic elections always come down to the economy in one way or other (that was how even the Nazis came to power in 1933), as the now commonplace quip of Bill Clinton political strategist James Carville during the 1992 election underscores. And even those among the Western intelligentsia who were most surprised and taken aback by the Trump victory have very quickly come around to the realization that the economic dislocations of the predominantly white working class in the once-ascendant northern industrial states were the indisputable root cause behind the outcome of the recent election.
At the same time and despite the howls and screams of so many on the American cultural left that these voters were motivated almost exclusively by an embedded and intractable white “racism” (which in recent years within academic discourse has become a genuine Lacanian “sliding signifier”), there is growing evidence that the shift toward a pandemic sort of “ethno-nationalism” is not confined to America, let alone white Westerners.
According to a surprising, panoptical survey of international political trends on the part of the prestigious, British-based magazine The Economist, ethno-nationalism is as much a trend in Asia as it is in Europe and America. Chinese and Indian chauvinists are outdistancing both through intensity and in calls for racial and cultural exclusivity many of their Western counterparts. “It is troubling,” The Economist opines, “how many countries are shifting from the universal, civic nationalism towards the blood-and-soil, ethnic sort.”
The weakness of the article is that it does not undertake to explain in any serious manner why such a massive trend is underway, other than to bemoan the sudden erosion of a “universal, civic nationalism”, which it vague associates with the “rule-based order” of “global institutions.” One, however, could substitute the expression “ideology of neoliberalism” and say what was really meant.
And that is exactly the problem. We have become slowly aware in the last two years at least that the finance-driven global economy with its algorithmic and automated concentration of extreme, nouveau wealth in a shrinking elite clique of asset-speculators worldwide has propelled a “populist” backlash, but we have shrugged off its consequences.
We have in our slick, streamlined, self-referential scholastic bubblehuts (about which a gaggle of academics in the Chronicle of Higher Education minced few words recently) have comforted ourselves with the prima facie ludicrous notion, contradicting the extensive historical record, that populism is nothing more or less than buck-naked xenophobia and ignorance, a remarkably mindless assumption which somehow has become the latter day “original sin” of our dogmatic secular theologies, echoing in the now infamous phrase “basket of deplorables”.
We have until now become congenitally incapable of grasping the fact, as Daniel Denvir wrote in Salon back in February in a critique of the Clinton candidacy, that American politics is now at “peak neoliberalism, where a distorted version of identity politics is used to defend an oligarchy and a national security state, celebrating diversity in the management of exploitation and warfare.”
It is the same point that Michel Foucault made already in the early 1980s in his lectures at the Collège de France, and which I made in a workshop I gave last summer at the University of Vienna and more recently to the faculty at the University of Denver (as well as in a more extensive published article). Pitting groups against each other as a mechanism of domination has been an effective imperial gambit for political and economic domination since at least the days of ancient Rome.
When The Economist rues the erosion of “civic nationalism” without bothering to provide any kind of clarifying causal analysis, it is simply spouting the “deep theology” of neoliberalism itself, which maintains that the deprivation of human dignity through what Marx termed the “immiseration” of labor is an unfortunate, yet necessary form of collateral damage in the propagation of a stateless, global, digital technocracy dedicated to unbounded and addictive self-expression along with the proliferation of identitarian symbologies of difference. If Marie Antoinette were alive today, she might well have exclaimed when faced with the rage of mobilized, minimum-wage les deplorables – “let them eat tweets.”
That is not to deny that the affects of racism, sexism, and every imaginable genus of x-phobia have not been emboldened in the new “populist” political environment. But these phenomena , despite the new “secular Calvinism”, do not happen at all to arise sui generis. They are indeed “structural,” as critical theorists have been arguing for quite a while, and are at last finding some kind of grim authorization to be released.
The “structure”, however, as a previous generation of theorists pointed out almost a half century ago, does not derive from some kind of autochthonous imprint on the soul of white people – or even peoples of color for that matter – but on the process of relentless typification and classification of self and other according to a surgical, yet unassailable politico-cultural logic of identity and difference.
In an age where key commodities are no longer material, but virtual, such a logic is indistinguishable from the economic logic of neoliberalism. The same “taxonomical” image of thought, which post-colonial theorist Walter Mignolo attributes to both the European Enlightenment and the genesis of Western racial stereotyping, is the gist not only of identity politics, but what the famous Harvard economist Theodore Levitt in the 1980s termed the “marketing imagination”, i.e., the theory that the key to corporate profitability and an expanding consumer base amounts to the power to symbolically differentiate “generic” commodities without altering their substance. Significantly, Levitt is also credited with giving currency in the same book to the term “globalization.”
The plaint of The Economist, therefore, regarding the decline of “civic universalism” rings rather hollow once we begin to understand that it is this tacit totalitarian grammar of of identity and difference common to neoliberal economics as well as politics that has brought us to this critical pass through an inexorable erosion of the plausible of there being anything “universal” in the first place. The superordinate “shaming and blaming” that becomes the brutal moral praxis of such a militant particularism fosters the very divisiveness that neoliberal political posturing pretends to abhor.
As James Poulos writing in the progressive online daily The Week puts it, our suddenly problematized deep theology of difference is rigidly focused on an insatiable, secular “vision of perfect justice that animates identity politics asserts and demands a totality of influence over public and private life that would make many moralists blush — or tremble.”
Jesus’ condemnation of the Pharisees in the gospels offers a suggestive parallel. As Jesus might have said , “and you experts in the law, woe to you, because you load people down with burdens they can hardly carry, and you yourselves will not lift one finger to help them.” (Luke 11:46, NIV)
Poulos argues in the same article that what “Pharisaic” secular neoliberalism needs to get is “religion,” i.e., a religion not of political condemnation for our myriad failures to realize “justice,” but of responsibility and reaching out in a radical way to the “other” through what might be called the deep universality of living together as One within the concretized imago Dei. “The truth obscured by the identitarian vision of politics, and revealed by living theologically at its best, is that the most important thing about being human is that we’re all human, and that how we are in light of that reality is more important than who we are.”
As Martin Luther (who didn’t of course always practice what he preached, especially when it came to the Jewish people) put it, the key to a true universalism is knowing how to become “Christs to each other.” That is the genuine, deep theological formulation of Emmanuel Levinas’ insight that we can only encounter the divine through the “face of the Other.”
And it may be the best solution for how we really need to position ourselves in the increasingly troubling days ahead.
Carl Raschke is Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Denver, specializing in Continental philosophy, art theory, the philosophy of religion and the theory of religion. He is also managing editor of Political Theology Today. His latest books are Critical Theology: Introducing An Agenda for an Age of Global Crisis (IVP Academic, 2016) and Force of God: Political Theology and the Crisis of Liberal Democracy (Columbia University Press, 2015) . His book The Revolution in Religious Theory: Toward a Semiotics of the Event (University of Virginia Press, 2012), looks at the ways in which major trends in Continental philosophy over the past two decades have radically altered how we understand what we call “religion” in general. His previous two books – GloboChrist (Baker Academic, 2008) and The Next Reformation (Baker Academic, 2004) – examine the most recent trends and in paths of transformations at an international level in contemporary Christianity.