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The Intractable Present
Making Sense of the Chaos
What follows? Everybody on the left, centre or right, religious or otherwise, has seemingly come to the same conclusion: liberalism has failed. Progress is an illusion; the individual never was, and a world whose only values are economic and utilitarian is a cruel and divided place. The free market has devastated human and non-human life alike. There is no shared idea of the good underlying our collective life. In the absence of community people are left to their own devices and asked to reinvent the moral wheel individually at each moment: things, inevitably, fall apart. The lockdowns of the past couple of years—a prison term—have only contributed to poor physical and mental health, to addiction and social alienation: how could they have not?
At the same time as refugees perish in unwelcoming seas and countries begin to segregate their populations on the basis of whether they’ve taken a vaccine whose efficacy and safety is necessarily unknown, a “culture war” rages: over race, over sex, over class (to a lesser degree) over who gets to speak, about what, and when. As a symptom of the decline of liberalism, the battles over free speech are indicative. The desire for justice and the desire to think are always, potentially, in tension: if you want to make the world a better place, there is no time for discussion; if, on the other hand, you want to think, you are confronted with doxa and ideology at every turn, much of which is either telling you what to think or what to think about (and what not to). It might be wise to strategically defend freedom of speech, expression and association, particularly when the alternative is having to agree to say or do something you don’t believe, but we could also read this antagonism as a sign or symptom of a deeper shift, a last battle.
Is there any way of escaping the war of positions? Every single current topic of interest to humanity is riven, emotional and seemingly intractable. Friendships are increasingly pursued (or not) on the basis of what position the other takes; have the “wrong” view and, more seriously, you find yourself potentially out of a job. The distinction between economic exploitation and ideological position is narrowing: mandatory vaccines for workers and vaccine passports for those who want to leave the country or buy food; the impossibility of living for those who do not or cannot sign up. Consciousness precedes economic circumstance: materialism becomes idealism again (the internet functioning as the virtualising Zeitgeist, much as battles over mind and spirit did in previous centuries). What you think is who you are and vice versa.
Economic circumstance is thus increasingly tied to ideological position. Those who think that it is right to stop people from earning money because their beliefs are incorrect are doing the work of bosses and the police. It’s also possible to imagine how this shock-troop behaviour is paving the way for a top-down social credit system of one kind or another. Your biological status will become ever more closely tied to your economic position and also to your mental states and beliefs. Everything comes as a package, especially you. Lockdowns, now they have been trialled on populations can and likely will be brought in whenever governments like, and for whatever reasons (climate change, playing with labour productivity, another health emergency, etc.). Fabio Vighi has suggested that the Covid situation is itself “a symptom of financial capital running amok … it is a symptom of a world that is no longer able to reproduce itself by profiting from human labour, thus relying on a compensatory logic of perpetual monetary doping.”
The era of real things and of socially-necessary labour is over: Now is the time of speculation, biosecurity and Artificial Intelligence. Vighi describes the financial Catch-22 of the elites: “Without Virus justifying monetary stimulus, the debt-leveraged financial sector would collapse overnight. At the same time, however, rising inflation coupled with supply-chain bottlenecks … threatens a devastating recession.” Seen this way, the only possible route out is the controlled demolition of the economy and the administration of the humanity that remains and is no longer necessary from a labour point of view (if the Labour Party actually took seriously its own name it would be actively discussing the financial plans of the elites which mitigate profoundly against the lives and freedoms of the vast majority of the population, rather than going along with the entire Covid agenda—or calling for more!—while simultaneously chasing its own tail on identity politics).
Historical fascism, as Vighi points out, saw the fusion of government with corporations, or, as he puts it, “industry controlled by governments while remaining privately owned.” Understanding this economic aspect of historical fascism is vital—we are heading towards it at a vast rate of knots. Everybody’s life will be controlled in the fusion of economics and politics, hastened by biological war and health-terror. Opposed to this historical and material understanding of fascism, however, we increasingly see, instead, the deliberately vague use of “fascism” in mainstream articles, for example, in Judith Butler’s recent attempt to suggest that anyone who opposes “gender” tends towards fascism: “Anti-gender movements are not just reactionary but fascist trends, the kind that support increasingly authoritarian governments.”
From this perspective, the feminist who criticises gendered expectations (namely the idea that if you are male or female then you must act in such-and-such a way), or who suggests that sex matters in certain contexts, or has concerns about puberty blockers or surgery as treatment for young people’s unhappiness with their body, is adjacent and ultimately politically indistinguishable both from Christians who believe that God created two sexes and that the Bible dictates how men and women should behave, and from a fascist position that would subsume women’s reproductive capacity under nationalist, expansionist and eugenic imperatives.
Similarly, the parallel elision of “anti-vaxxers” with “fascists,” no matter what the range of opinions within this group or the reasons for holding them might be—from those who believe that the virus itself is a hoax to those who think that the lockdowns were wrong or those who fear how the state will use vaccine status as a political tool, and many other thoughts—exemplifies a dominant contemporary ideological Manicheanism, where those who are bad (everyone who doesn’t agree with what Judith Butler or liberal media says about gender or vaccines, say) and those who are good (the atheist who nevertheless believes in “science”) can be easily distinguished. When people joke, or increasingly do not joke, about putting people in camps, believe them.
Thus a kind of vicious harmony is maintained in the minds of those who would otherwise be troubled by what would otherwise appear to be unbearable contradictions. “Fascism” becomes not the name for a set of historical and political conditions, but a psychic mark. As Paul E. Gottfried puts it in his 2017 book, Fascism: The Career of a Concept, “[A] popular view of fascism is that it’s an evil that springs out of anti-progressive forces lurking within us … As seen from this angle, fascism is a kind of original sin that, unless continuously monitored, may rise to the surface with catastrophic consequences.” It is of course very easy to imagine that darkness lies in the heart of the other, and not also in oneself. In the absence of any Christian doctrine of fallenness, humility, the universal capacity for transgression, as well as forgiveness and atonement, the world becomes very simple: What is bad is not me, what is good is me. The ambivalence and lack that form the core of psychoanalytic work have also largely disappeared from contemporary self-understanding to be replaced by the rigid policing of an increasingly arcane set of rules. Anyone who cannot or will not follow these rules will be fair game for hatred (the hatred of those you are allowed to hate is quite different from the hate you see in others, of course).
“Fascism” is a word that rightly invokes terror and horror. Many people, myself included, had grandparents that fought against fascism in World War II. To throw the word around indiscriminately, and to use it to describe all kinds of positions that bear absolutely no relation to any genuine fascist politics is not only obscurantist, it is obscene, particularly when actions of governments that resemble fascist policies are being imposed are ignored by those who otherwise freely use the word to smear those they imagine they disagree with.
It is the mark of a very strange and bleak time when the question “is the analysis of power and the demand for truth reactionary?” can be asked, as “Sensible Captain” does in a recent perceptive article “Power and the Question of Truth in Covid Leftism.” Here the author asks the contemporary left, who are keen to dismiss any questions about the virus or the political measures taken, the following: “Since when is the demand for truth—that is, for truthful information, for truthful decisions, for a transparent communication faithful to democratic principles like reason over emotion—reactionary?” And what is the truth in a world in which those asking questions and calling for open discussion are routinely derided as those who in practice did the exact, authoritarian opposite? In another piece, the same author writes, “The denial of objective reality - that we live in a class society with an unprecedented class war from above in the framework of pandemic politics—is the main discursive procedure in this political reconfiguration.” The misuse of political epithets to tarnish perceived enemies, the acceptance and defence of authoritarian measures in the name of “safety”—these are the realities of our current moment: “The denial of basic civil rights and freedoms within the dictates of the Covid regime are a class war from above,” “Sensible Captain” notes.
Let us be clear: It is not “reactionary” to ask what is happening to our lives, to wonder what is really going on. It is not “right-wing” to be concerned with the truth of any particular situation or to ask larger questions about who is profiting, and where this all ends. It is not “fascist” to be troubled when our everyday perception of reality is punished in the name of arbitrary “justice” meted out by vigilante strangers pretending to be the state. In turn, it is our moral and historical duty to be suspicious of the state when it fuses with corporations, and when every aspect of our existence is meshed into a controllable unit of data. Censorship is a major component of authoritarian regimes, left or right. Those who would imagine themselves part of the enlightened left would do well to recall this, and to wonder what becomes of Labour movements who no longer represent ordinary workers because their views are felt to be “objectionable.”
There is ultimately an image of life that must be defended beyond liberal conceptions. Where do we go from here? For conservatives, such as Patrick Deneen, there is little to be gained from a rear-guard defence of liberal values. In a recent piece “Abandoning Defensive Crouch Conservatism: Toward a Conservatism that is not Liberalism,” he argues that “Mid-century conservatism arose as a defensive response to an advancing liberalism. It began as an effort to defend liberalism, the “good” liberalism constructed in mid-century and attributed to the Founding Fathers and the Constitution, a politics based upon as an avoidance of any idea of the Good in politics and economics.” This defensive liberalism focussed on seven main areas: Religious liberty, “Limited” government, The inviolability of private institutions (e.g., corporations), Academic Freedom, Constitutional “Originalism,” Free Markets and Free speech and “expression.” For Deneen, this amounted to a conservatism without content, in that it proposed no positive notion of the good, but only struggled to hold onto early modern liberal values.
Despite critiques to the contrary, Deneen suggests that it is not the left that promulgates relativism (“they know what they believe, and pursue that goal with fierce and unwavering determination”), but rather conservative individualism that ends up inadvertently defending relativism and pluralism. The post-liberal right can appeal to tradition, in particular Aristotle and Aquinas (as does Alasdair MacIntyre whose relationship to left and right is arguably more complex). What traditions can the post-liberal left draw upon? What notion of the good exists in this tradition? There is a left-wing or anarchist Christianity found in the works of Ivan Illich in particular, scepticism about institutions (particularly medicine and technology) that remain absolutely relevant. But we will need to draw on much more than this—a post-liberal left will need to reconstruct its own values from out of the conformist and ideological soup of the present. We must start from what exists, what is real and what is true. And we must not be afraid.