Sunday, October 18, 2009

Hybris Absurdum (2nd 1/2)

Neoliberalism is a term that comes from Milton Friedman's attempts at reappropriating the mantle of enlightenment era liberal philosophy for the modern conservative movement. Claiming that the liberal philosophical tradition was more initially centered on the ideas of an individual's rationality being the basis for natural rights of personal freedom (for Locke, for example, life, liberty, and property or for Jefferson [by way of George Mason's Virginia Constitution] life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness [being substantially about property anyway one would assume {and also more poetic}]), Friedman then attempts to use this fact as proof that the modern purveyors of liberal philosophy have lost their way.

The problem here is, as Joachim of Floris has long since pointed out, bonum et necessarium in suo tempore, the good and the necessary according to its time. Truth is not static. Every time you try to nail it down, you find, inevitably, that you have nailed your own hand to the picnic table. Inevitably. The picnic table.

The early foundations of the liberal philosophical tradition were fighting against monarchic political systems, a feudal economic system, and autocratic religious institutions. The truth of the primacy of individual freedom was in response to the reality of a collectivism that was a means towards the maintenance and perpetuance of an oppressive and devastatingly wide inequality.

As the Western world moved farther towards democratic structures (albeit imperfect ones that at their best export the exploitation, per internal enthocentric democratic demands), liberal philosophy moved towards equality as an organizing principle. Quite clearly there were many early on who were dazzled by the idea of revolution and believed foolishly in the potentials of a modern Russian autocracy which were never really there. But that idiocy has little to do with the importance of equality. It does remind us though that Friedman is right to say that these freedoms are important. Equality does not negate the importance of freedom nor freedom equality.

For Saint Augustine though, and later Martin Luther, their is only one fundamental freedom. This is the freedom to turn one's life toward God. Or to not to.

For Augustine, the consequences of turning away from God were great. I'll let Paul Tillich explain:

Augustine described it thus: "The soul died when it was left alone by God, as a body will die when it is left by the soul." The soul which is dead, religiously speaking, has lost its control over the body. When this happened, the other side of sin became actual. The beginning is pride, hybris, turning to oneself, becoming separate from God. The consequence is concupiscence, the infinite endless desire. The word concupiscentia, desire or libido (in the ways in which modern pychology uses it) has two meanings in Augustine: the universal meaning, the turning toward the movable goods, those goods which change and disappear, and the narrower meaning of natural sexual desire, which is accompanied by shame.

Now, in Luther, this idea of turning oneself toward God was described as salvation through faith in grace. A closer look at Luther's question of faith and we find that faith was not about a strict and literal faith in the words of the bible per se, although he was a biblicist. Luther was not talking about a faith in the fact that the world is six thousand years old or things of this nature. Luther was talking about an experience. The experience of a living faith in one's own connection to a loving God. And in turning toward God (which can be understood in metaphoric terms as opening one's soul to the potentials of grace for example), the experience becomes one of loving all things, as God exists, God works through all things. Luther said quite plainly that people could know the word of god without having ever been exposed to the bible or Christianity. It was about the reception of grace, the faith that grace would come if thou hadst a joyful and loving heart with which to see and act in the world.

Then came John Calvin. Calvin did not believe in freedom. He believed in predestination. Actually double predestination. He believed that all people had been chosen before birth, before committing any sin, whether they were to go to heaven or spend eternity in damnation. He claimed that evil and hellfire were necessary as some sort of contrast to show just how glorious was god's glory.

While Calvin always held that no one can know beforehand which way you were destined to go at the end, the actual Calvinist and radical evangelical churches had to deal with a populace that undoubtedly wanted some assurances, some way to know for themselves that they were one of the chosen few. Here faith becomes certainty. Doubt becomes the enemy. Only those who believe with absolute certainty can possibly be one of the elect. Also, God's blessing here on Earth was another indication. If you were blessed by material wealth, even as it was a sin to spend that wealth (Calvinists were rigidly ascetic), you might just be one of God's chosen few.

Calvinism was a mixed blessing at best. One of the outcomes of Calvinistic thought was essentially the idea of investment, which is at the heart of capitalistic enterprises. The protestant ethic of hard work and a spendthrift life is really what brought the West beyond the feudal/mercantile system of the middle ages, in concert with liberal philosophy and the industrial revolution, but Calvin also gave to us righteousness. This idea that somehow being absolutely certain brings god's eternal glory. Course, Calvin himself never had any certainty on questions of theology, only about his own status as one of the elect. He famously reversed himself on his deathbed on the question of the ontology of evil, thinking that maybe his idea that god creates evil in order to bring his own glory into high relief might just be totally batshit. Certainty has and will always be dangerous because in certainty there is no room to question. No room to philosophize, to falsify, to reason out the deep questions of human life, and to potentially move in concert with the dynamic truths of a human life, a thing which has no stasis. Certainty is the dead and rotting core of a stale and idolic religion, and Luther knew it. Calvin could not see it.

Returning to Augustine, we find that pride is the observable consequence of the original sin both allegorically in Adam and in reality in each of us, which was this turning away from God. Hybris, pride, or the Greek hubris (that always fatal flaw) and certainty are not so far from each other. Such that the means by which this community of believers meant to guarantee God's special blessing may very well have been the sign by which we might know that they did, in fact, turn themselves away from God.

The ultimate expression of this turning was the 'infinite endless desire', the inability to find any true or lasting satisfaction, the shallow materiality. The modern mentality in which protestantism is a stale and static force for emotional idolatry, and consumption has become the true religion of the people of the West.

The strange irony of the situation is that this shallow materiality is ultimately irrational. And it would not be rational to accept this situation as the given or the necessary. And it is through the non-rational experience of faith in the grace of the truth and the beauty of the life and the world and the word that will allow us to see just how ridiculously childishly irrational we all have been/are being. And but yet this is what we find in the economic assumption of scarcity; that it is assumed not only that desire is unsatisfiable but also implicitly that the attempt should be made, and that this, again implicitly, is the rational way towards happiness and possible satisfaction. Essentially, the satisfaction of a spiritual fulfillment is factored out of economic equations. Augustine's ultimate freedom is canceled out against what? The potentials of materiality to bring us some measure of that spiritual joy? And so what is left is the milquetoast freedoms of car brands and whatnot, Milton Friedman's most treasured thing. The idol that he worshiped.

The problem we find in this disregard for the truely fundamental freedom of the self is that it creates a complication for the economic assumptions of any chance at equilibrium. There can be no assumption of linearity or curvilinearity in the functions of prices, wages, savings, investment, consumption, etc. Inflation for example, the wage-price spiral, is unsolvable for a society as employment approaches zero because of the fundamental irrationality of the rational self-interests of the competing parties for whom cooperating means to lose. The Nash equilibrium will not hold in the reality of these bargaining situations because it requires social concern from all involved, both labor and business. Within our current structure of that bargaining process, this is not really possible.

And this is the purely, grotesquely hilarious theater of absurdity that has long been the reality. The modern individual is Augustine's prideful self, the self devoid of grace, and this is the self that has no doubt. This is the self that knows its own election and cares nothing for the concerns and cares of the rest, cares only for it's own freedoms to choose amongst the gimcracks of shallow materiality, and will never get beyond the infinite endless desire. These selves will forever and perpetually be caught in the types of bipolar economic convulsions the depression side of which we are living through at this moment, and they, we, will never know equilibrium, know balance, know grace of any kind. No peace can come of this way of being. Or so it would seem.

Okay so I'm getting a little preachy now, and the economic element of this argument is underdeveloped here. There's also substantially more to say about the transition into capitalism and the way Protestantism lost the spirit and also secular moralism and it's relation to this turning towards god. The last point is one I'm sticking on a bit I'll admit, but, well, it'll all shake out somehow. For now, that'll have to suffice.

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