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Religion and Eschatology in Politics

Religious ideas about the end of the world and other issues keep messing with our thinking.

The Ailing Left and the Geopolitics of Cruelty

In the six years since I started this blog, I have tried to render upsetting social and political events in abstract terms and subject them to some level of analysis. Last year, for instance, I wrote a bit arguing that by showing that he was sexually violent and abusive to his daughter Donald Trump’s was successful in portraying himself as an omnipotent strongman figure to his base. I want to continue with that theme and unite it with some of my observations about the institutional failure of Canadian left politics at present.

But in doing so, I want to simplify things. My ability to wrap syllables and analysis around hard realities is sometimes useful. But sometimes it distances us too much from the horror we face and the simplicity of the problem before us. Great work has been done to re-legitimate the word “lie” after decades of obfuscating terms like “mis-statement,” “alternative facts” and “journalistic balance.” I would like us to do more with another necessary word: cruelty.

Simply put, our problem is that every day, more and more people in our societies embrace cruelty and other people’s suffering as a necessary moral good. And that, readers, is, in my estimation, evil.

 

The reason Americans have chosen a confessed rapist and proud child molester to lead the greatest empire the world has ever known is because the ascendant social and political movements, in state after state, around the world, are those that celebrate cruelty and the infliction of suffering on others.

There have been many devastating consequences of pragmatic socialists aligning with liberal utilitarians over the past half-century, from the Third Way (neoliberalism with a human face) to the conflation of socialist thought with a nebulous, incoherent progressivism, to the replacement of socialist internationalism with foreign policy Taoism. But perhaps the most devastating is this: people who have believed themselves to live in an unjust society, who feel the palpable injustice of neoliberalism with its bloodless technocracy, heritable privilege and collision course with the carbon cycle have been offered nothing by the left. No large-scale leftist political movement has stated with clarity “this social order is fundamentally unjust and must be replaced with a just one.”

Instead we, on the left have offered short-term tactical alliances, strategic retreats and technocratic fixes. We have been so focused on trying to save the vestiges of the twentieth-century Keynesian welfare state that we have become the defenders of the status quo, promising desperate people that, with us as junior partners, things will get worse slower.

As a result, we have stood back and given free rein to the worst forces in our societies to offer the only theory of fairness on offer. By submerging socialism in liberal utilitarian discourse, colloquially known as “progressivism,” we have quit the field. We have chosen not to offer any competition to those saying “everything is fucked. The world is just as unfair as you feel it is. We must take drastic action to change everything.” At the very moment when climate science tells us unambiguously that this is actually the only position an intellectually responsible person can take, we continue to offer incremental change that no one is looking for.

So, who is saying that? Those speaking with the most clarity on this issue are American conservative evangelicals and Salafists. They have a simple message: God is trying to punish people. He is trying to scourge humanity and the institutions that comprise twentieth-century states are standing in the way. There are too many earthquake survivors, too many cancer survivors, too many people living through famines and droughts, too few homeless people freezing to death, too few asylum-seekers drowning on the high seas. The consequences of climate change have been effortlessly repurposed by these movements. Droughts, famines, floods and fires are God’s traditional tools for scourging the unjust and the just alike. And once again, government stands in the way, thwarting God’s judgement at every turn.

Day after day, I read well-intentioned but confused liberals and socialists on social media bewildered that Trump’s supporters are so foolish as to think that Obamacare’s repeal will make things better. Such a position arises from a failure of imagination about what “better” can mean, the inability to understand that the way its repeal will make things better will be by causing more people to die, people who should already be dead, were it not for the hubris of Barack Obama to try and interpose the state between God and his judgement.

Such a worldview is cruel. The theory of fairness that is on offer is that God is trying to punish us and we, arrogantly, are trying to dodge that punishment. But, at the same moment, it is altruistic. Many of the people fighting to repeal current US healthcare law or keep their town in the hands of ISIL or the Lord’s Resistance Army or Boko Haram are willing to sacrifice their own lives in the name of this monstrous theory of justice. People are willing to lay down their own lives to make sure that there is more suffering and death in the world, in accordance with God’s plan.

Not only does the contemporary mainstream left fail to validate the feelings of those who believe the world is fundamentally unfair and must be reordered to restore justice, it also rejects the efforts of people who wish to be heroes—valiant people who have that intuitive consciousness of the injustice of the present order. The world is, and always has been, full of people who are willing to put everything on the line to fight evil. There are incipient heroes in every family, in every neighbourhood, town and village. Many people have been surprised by the thousands who put their bodies on the line at Standing Rock last year, the thousands who faced off against the state in the streets in the early days of the Trump regime. Many people were stunned by the Syria-wide protests against a monstrous, homicidal regime following the bombing of Aleppo. I was not.

The problem is that the mainstream electoral left has a place for you if you can represent yourself as a victim, an aspiring technocrat or a classically liberal rational actor and benefit-maximizer, and, ideally all three, if you care to look at the BC NDP’s candidate selection procedures. But what about people who want to denounce injustice, call out evil for what it is, and march out into the streets to challenge it? The fascist movements around us are winning because they have a place for those people and we do not. The leftist mobilization we have seen in recent months has taken place in spite of the prevailing thinking of the left, not because of it.

Our present political moment arises from the fact that there is only one compelling narrative for vanquishing injustice that people are being offered. And it is the one that celebrates cruelty, that eggs on climate change, that revels in torture, that cheers “LET HIM DIE!!! LET HIM DIE!!!!” like that 2012 Republican primary debate audience when candidates were asked about the uninsured. In opposition to this, we offer an imagined past of tolerant twentieth-century welfare states, accommodation with global capital and the investor class, investor rights regimes like the EU and NAFTA, and small-scale technocratic change, provided the investor class gets its cut.

It is a testament to the fundamental decency of the human race that, in democracies around the world, a slim majority continues to reject the politics of cruelty and conservative religio-political eschatology. In the absence of a visionary left, that decency is all that is holding human civilization in place.

On Side for the Big Win

In 1996, there were a lot more passenger trains in this country. There were daily trips between Victoria and Courtenay and between North Vancouver and Prince George via 100 Mile House to name a few. But the evisceration of VIA Rail was just getting going with the Chrétien government’s third budget. It was hard to guess which train lines would vanish when, so my friend Oscar and I thought I had better take the train trip that had fascinated me the most: the Winnipeg-Churchill run through the entire breadth of Canada’s boreal forest and across the tree line. It was a great trip in which I watched Oscar swim in the Arctic Ocean and looked at amazing comic book-style ivory dioramas of Inuit legends; it’s one that I hope people can still make when another two thirds of VIA’s funding is cut by Harper in the next fiscal year.

But the thing I remember best about it was dropping in on my friend K at the 1996 Progressive Conservative Party convention in Winnipeg on the way. He and my other Tory friends had been crushed by the party’s annihilation in 1993 personally, financially, ideologically, you name it. But they were young and not prepared to give up. When I arrived, it was late on the Friday night and people were in high spirits. I began asking where K was and was directed to a ballroom on the top floor of the convention hotel, where he and New Brunswick Opposition leader Bernard Valcourt were in finalists in the convention’s “bungee running” competition.

As though re-enacting the entire post-Mulroney experience of the party in a single cathartic episode, K, former Special Assistant to the Speaker and Valcourt, disgraced former cabinet minister were tied to the wall on opposite sides of the room with long bungee cords and were competing to stretch their cords far enough, fast enough to reach the bottle of single malt scotch on top of a makeshift plinth in the centre of the room – but not so fast that the cord snapped them back to the wall. Auguring things to come, Valcourt got the bottle and shared a small amount of it with K before putting me in a celebratory introductory headlock and staggering downstairs.

Then I asked K how the convention had gone and he was ebullient. Having made Jean Charest party leader, he felt confident the Tories would (as they did) regain official party status in 1997 and believed that, with hard work, they could form the Official Opposition. (They failed to do that but did get a fifth of the popular vote, the second largest share in the election and more than half of the victorious Liberals’.) The reason he was confident, he explained, was that the convention comprised only two main groups of delegates: people who shared his clear-eyed vision of how the party could claw its way, incrementally, back to relevance and less clear-headed delegates who were “on side for the big win.”

The reason K felt confident in the party’s recovery was that, while forming a core of dedicated donors and volunteers, those On Side for the Big Win were not crafting election strategy. The term soon joined my vocabulary as a crucial descriptor for a certain kind of activist as I entered my second term as BC Green Party leader.

But by 1999, the term had taken on a less rosy complexion in our shared lexicon. K and his allies were fighting off a takeover attempt by David Orchard (something I’d advised Orchard to do over dinner in 1997 as a media stunt). Orchard’s supporters were utterly humourless and totally convinced that, upon their guru’s election as party leader, the Tories would surge into first place and form a majority government. I, meanwhile, was fighting off a leadership challenge by Adriane Carr who confidently proclaimed to anyone who would listen that once people saw her in the televised debate, she would become premier of BC.

It was tough for K and me, in our respective parties, to challenge prescriptions of sudden, easy, total victory because so damned many people were On Side for the Big Win. Why, such people wanted to know, was I trying to build electoral alliances with labour and New Democrats? Why was I diverting energy from suburban ridings into a handful of city centre and hippie-filled wet belt rural seats? These kinds of compromises and sacrifices seemed insane to people who imagined total victory to be just around the corner.

But I want to suggest that this desperate conviction of total, imminent victory in the face of overwhelming evidence, like having less than 1000 members in your party and a budget of less than $70,000 per year, is not really optimism at all. It is actually the most pernicious manifestation of despair one can find.

Magical thinking – see my article on this elsewhere – emerges most often when people lose the ability to imagine an actual, real, plausible path to what they want and they retreat into a kind of conscious, dissociative fantasy life in which they replace real world improvement with an imaginary future in which they take refuge from the bleak realities that surround them.

Nobody has ever been more On Side for the Big Win than the Native Americans who joined the Ghost Dance movement of the prophet Wovoka who promised victory in battle through invincibility to bullets and European disease and divine assistance in a rectifying eschaton that would cleanse the Americas of colonists. The false, desperate confidence of those who rode into battle to die during the closing of the frontier in the 1880s was not actual hope – it was total and abject despair.

Today, many of us on the Civic Left are caught between two kinds of despair: a cynical and hopeless politics of brokerage and collaboration with corporate real estate elites on one hand and the politics of the Big Win on the other. To follow either path is to succumb to despair.

I – and a growing coalition of people I meet every day – can see a narrow, hard, steep path for this city’s left to recover, to stand against the escalating efforts to cleanse the city of all but the wealthiest among us. But we must keep our wits about us. We are not on an inexorable march to victory any more than we have been permanently defeated – there is hope but that hope is fragile, evidence-based and meriting careful analysis and clever strategy. But we must guard against that hope turning to desperation and ourselves, our friends and allies coming On Side for the Big Win.

Odin’s Pep-talk

You may have got the sense recently that I disapprove of mixing of mythology and politics, especially eschatology and politics. Mythological ideas about the end of the world have not always made great contribution to political thought but that doesn’t mean they can never make positive contribution. So, for today’s, blog entry let me give you the pep-talk that, like me, is coming out of retirement. I used to give this talk back in the 90s when my friends and I were fighting against ozone depletion, climate change, mainstream politics, big corporations and the arrayed forces of capitalism. I like to think of this talk as something like Odin’s pep-talk.

Odin, for those of you who aren’t familiar with his work, was the All-Father, chief of the Norse gods, who presided in the halls of Valhalla amongst gods like Tyr, Thor, Loki, etc. Odin was a pretty worried guy because he was responsible for the other gods and for the world they protected. He and his comrades protected this world from the ice giants, fire giants and the other monsters, monsters who were always on the march.

Odin is sometimes depicted as a huge, authoritative, worried man seated at a banquet table not touching his food. He is worried because, according to the Norse, it was prophesied at the beginning of time that the world would end in the battle of Ragnarök, between the gods and the beasts. According to the prophecy, the gods will lose the final battle: Loki, the traitor to the gods and leader of the giants, father of some of the monsters, will lead the giants to the Bifröst Bridge. There, he will slay Heimdallr, guardian of the bridge, charged since the beginning with preventing the giants from crossing it and entering Asgard, land of the gods.

Asgard needed to be guarded, not just to protect the gods and their hall, Valhalla but to protect a chain created to restrain Loki’s most monstrous offspring, Fenris the Wolf. But according to the prophecy, not only would Heimdall’s death allow the giants to storm across the bridge and plunder Valhalla; it would allow Loki to untether the wolf, who would swallow the sun and bring all creation to an end. While Christian eschatology guarantees ultimate victory for the forces of life, light and goodness, the eschatology of the Norse guaranteed that one day, the sun would be swallowed, the gods would be vanquished and the world with them.

Because of Odin’ knowledge of the prophecy, he is shown as a valiant yet worried man with a raven on each shoulder, and his constantly vigilant single eye, the other sacrificed to obtain wisdom. This wisdom, I would like to suggest, did not imbue Odin with fatalism but instead with a sense of vigilance and urgency. Odin leaves his food uneaten and mead un-drunk, not because he is paralyzed by his knowledge but because it forces him to constantly plot his next move. The certainty of Ragnarök placed one clear moral imperative before him: if the world was going to end inevitably, his job was not to save it but to keep it ending for as long as possible.

Every day the world does not end and people can drink, dance and have children, Odin wins; the gods win; creation wins. And this, I believe, is the mission of those fighting for social and environmental justice today: to keep the world ending as long as we can, to fight back every day, to buy the world another day, another hour, another second. When the ravens fly into Valhalla and tell us where the giants are today, that is where we have to go. Because every battle we pitch between them and the Bifröst Bridge buys the world and its people more time.

I find something exhilarating and empowering about that. Maybe we will buy very little time in the next battle but I am convinced that that the act of struggling against the forces of capitalism always makes a difference, always adds another unexpected or unwanted delay on Loki’s march to the bridge and gives dozens, hundreds or even billions of people a little extra time. If you really believe that life is sacred, that life is the most precious thing, you know what a few more seconds of life are worth. Maybe you will get hurt fighting the giants every chance you get; sometimes we will be too tired to fight; and that is okay. My point is simply that this struggle and the continuity of life are one in the same. The sun rises because Fenris has not swallowed it; and that is because we keep fighting the giants.

Unfortunately, thanks to the legacy Plato, Descartes and other philosophers who emphasize ideas of perfection and eternity, we have got this crazy idea that unless a victory is final and total, it is not a victory. In other words, any actual victory that takes place in the real world doesn’t count. And so we are cast into despair by the inevitably imperfect nature of our next victory. This is a way of thinking a way of living that disempowers us. There is no final, total victory. The earth is running out of steam; the sun is running out of steam; we are only going to be around for so long, anyway. But every second that we extend life on this planet matters.

Now is not the time to lose heart. Now that the northern polar ice cap has vanished, the giants can pretty much see the bridge from where they are. So let’s sharpen our swords and ride out from Valhalla over the bridge to meet the giants once again. At least, that’s how I like to think about, to quote Ken Kesey, getting back in the hassle.

What If We’re Too Prepared For the End of the World?

Or, “the Avalanche Has Begun and We Are the Stones”

People talk a lot about the unprecedented nature of the current environmental crisis, or as Gro Harlem Brundtland termed it in her world-changing Our Common Future in 1987, “interlocking crises.” But this assumes that the main way we are experiencing declining biodiversity, increasing environmental toxicity, a changing atmosphere, rising radioactivity and the other major ecological problems of our day is through a direct, physical relationship to those events.

The reality is that we, and other species whose primary activity is hanging out with each other, experience almost all events, even the most significant in our lives, in a socially-mediated fashion. Our main experience of the declining capacity of planetary life support systems is the collective responses, reactions and understandings of the people around us.

That’s one of the many reasons human beings, and especially those situated in Christian and post-Christian societies, are having a lot of trouble dealing with the actual ecological crisis that is unfolding. The year it was written and nearly every year since, the Book of Revelation has appeared to describe the events unfolding on the day it is being read. War? Check. Strife? Check. Hunger (actually better translated as wage and price manipulations by elites)? Check. Death? Must be just around the corner. And it’s not just the horsemen; there’s the succession of empires leading to some kind of crescendo of global imperialism.

The genius of Revelation and, I think, the reason for its persistent resistance to highly rational arguments for its de-canonization in the fourth century, and in every major review of the Bible’s contents since, is that it just seems so up-to-the-minute relevant even to non-Christians. While both Martin Luther and Jean Calvin originally argued for its removal from the Bible along with the rest of the Apocrypha, its irresistible power in the present ultimately scuttled those plans. It was simply too expedient to go along with the throngs of Protestant revolutionary volunteers who were already convinced of the Reformers’ ultimate position: that the Pope, himself, was the Antichrist, the main character introduced in Revelation.

For nearly two millennia, Christians have been expecting a world-ending cataclysm that includes, among other things, destabilization of the climate, befouling of the land and seas, accompanied by big explosions any day now. The problem isn’t so much that the human race is taking the most important exam of its career and it hasn’t studied; it’s that we have been studying for this exam every day but based on a really out-of-date copy of Cole’s Notes.

Before I get to the implications of being over- not under-prepared for climate change, ozone depletion, nuclear containment breaches, oil spills and the like, I need to square away some messy terminology. People often refer to the events in Revelation as the “apocalypse.” Actually, “apocalypse” is a literary genre from ancient and medieval times; it refers to a piece of writing in which the narrator is lifted up above the world and shown the whole structure of space-time by a god or other powerful entity. The “apocalypse” or revelation of Saint John the Divine refers not to the events narrated but to the way in which they are narrated. The events themselves would have been understood at the time as the eschaton, a Greek work meaning an end-times reckoning, of which only the adjectival form has survived in English (eschatological).

 

Unfortunately, nearly two thousand years of preparation of the Christian eschaton has caused us to entertain a number of ideas about the interlocking crises we currently face that actually serve us worse even than uncomprehending shock and confusion.

1. The elect will be spared: Today, there is a popular illusion that if one makes the correct consumer choices within the matrix of present-day First World capitalism, one can live sustainably. This is, of course, nonsense. We live in such an energy-intensive society that any participation in the systems that transport people, goods and information guarantees a high impact on the biosphere. Furthermore, the extent to which one alters consumer choices to reduce one’s environmental impact typically produces a proportional reduction in one’s efficacy as an activist for systemic change. The more “sustainably” one lives, the more time and money go into food and household maintenance, the harder it is to move both oneself and cargo from one location to another, etc.

Why, then, is a slight, meaningless reduction in one’s ecological footprint within a massively over-consuming, over-polluting society so important to environmentalists, given the terrible cost to the movement’s efficacy incurred by making these sacrifices? I would like to suggest that much of this is bound up in our vision of the eschaton. In the reckoning at the end of the world, those who are spared will be those who have lived their lives according to the ethical precepts of the virtuous minority. For when the time comes to enter into the New Jerusalem, “people will bring into it the glory and honour of the nations. But nothing unclean will enter it, nor anyone who practices abomination or falsehood but only those who are written in the Lamb’s book of life.” (Revelation 21:26-27)

Furthermore, “the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it, and his servants will worship him they will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads. And there will be no more night; they need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign for ever and ever.” (Revelation 22:3-5) In other words, virtuous conduct in the present is what will determine who governs the society to which the eschaton will give rise. Those who lived in an ecologically moral way shall be the new rulers. In other words, the act of witnessing and the act of opting out are understood to confer on those engaged therein an exemption from the coming reckoning; they are the 144,000 who will march into the Kingdom of Heaven intact.

On the other hand, bad people who use their mainstream political connections and wealth to fly around the world in gas-guzzling planes and rely on rare earth technologies to communicate are hypocrites by virtue of choosing efficacy over irrelevance.

2. The eschaton will be physically fair: Related to the previous idea, and brilliantly dramatized in the climate change disaster movie, The Day After Tomorrow, the physically destructive forces of climate change punish people based on a hierarchy of virtue, like the monsters in teen slasher movies who take out victims based on their relative promiscuity.

The back-to-the-land movement of the 1970s and its descendants today are best situated in the venerable tradition of Saint Antony, considered by some to be the founder of Christian monasticism. While the rhetoric of physical distance and self-sufficiency often power this very fossil fuel-intensive lifestyle, I would suggest that the reason not just the geography of Antony’s movement but its aesthetic of coarse, modest garments and long beards continue into the present day is because what members are attempting to do through isolation and distinctive appearance is to mark themselves as exempt from the scourging of the eschaton.

Like the Israelites who marked their doors with the blood of slaughtered sheep or the Millerites in the white robes on the day of the Great Disappointment (see my strategic voting article), today’s elect engage in practices of geographic and social isolation that seem far more interested in marking themselves as exempt from the terrible consequences of ecological collapse but are dressed-up as practices of self-sufficiency.

And this is why there is often a hard-to-disguise glee on the faces of people warning of the ecological eschaton; they are experiencing a strange internal sense of security, of invulnerability. Although they know better, because they are often highly educated in the physical and social sciences, when they warn you of the impending calamity, they experience an irrational reassurance that the very act of warning will protect them from the coming scourge that will exalt the elect and punish the wicked. That’s why my activist friend Ira can never stop himself from smiling when he announces the next timetable for the total social and environmental collapse of our civilization. He knows that the scourging forces of nature will be focused on the most iniquitous and not on himself and, furthermore, that they will, independent of human action, be agents of the changes he favours.

It is for this reason that peak oil has had such a seductive conceptual hold over environmentalists. If we can rely on the eschaton, itself, to reward to elect and punish the iniquitous, to establish the social order of the future, we can expect that fossil fuels will run out, that uranium-235 will run out, while the water collected by microhydro systems will remain intact and the sun absorbed by solar collectors will remain just as abundant. It would simply be unfair for there to be ever-increasing fossil fuel and fissionable material availability, while destabilizing weather systems wreak havoc with microhydro and solar energy systems. Indeed, it will be those who have profited most from our current regime of ecological destruction who will be best-resourced to survive any disaster coming our way.

3. The New Jerusalem will be eternal: The peoples of the Ancient Mediterranean, Near East and Mesoamerica are sometimes thought to have had an eschatological theory of time. But Hesiod and the author of the Annals of Cuauhtitlan saw a succession of ages stretching forward through time, each ending in disaster. The Golden Age might end in a world-destroying disaster but it was to be followed by the Silver Age; the fourth sun might set but the fifth sun would rise. What makes Christian history so distinctive is that this is the last round of musical chairs, that however we the elect are socially organized at the eschaton will become the ultimate social order of the human race.

This means, effectively, that the way in which the elect currently live or aspire to live will be the eternal social order that will be installed by the eschaton and never fall. When we look at the bizarre and highly inefficient social and organizational forms of movements like Occupy or the intentional communities that still dot rural British Columbia take on, these are not forms that arise out of a plan to efficiently organize projects of witnessing or dissent. They are forms that arise out of an attempt to imagine the terminal human social order. The fascistic substratum of what appear to be innocuous social experiments is a function of their participants imagining that how they are living is how all people should and will be made to live for the rest of time.

Correctly rejecting “sustainable development” as proposed by the Brundtland Commission for its plan to save the planet by increasing human impact on the biosphere more than tenfold, environmentalists hit upon a term that expresses this theory perfectly, “sustainability.” A policy or practice is sustainable if it can be started now and continue until the earth ceases to support life .While the idea of not making resources in the present unavailable to future generations is a compelling one, trying to simultaneously answer the questions, “how should we live now?” and “how shall people live for all eternity?” produces crazy answers. Alloyed with Gandhian, “we must become the change we seek” rhetoric, this way of thinking becomes not merely absurdly totalitarian, in that people acting are understood to be deciding how all people shall live for the rest of time, it makes environmentalists intrinsically hostile to transition strategies.

One of the most penetrating ecological thinkers of the early 1990s, David Lewis (no relation to the NDP dynasts) labeled this kind of thinking as “embrymoronic.” His political opponents in the Green Party were fond of stating that the party itself was not so much a tool for bringing about systemic change as an embryo of future society itself. Instead of its organizational features being evaluated based on their conventional efficacy, they were based on their aesthetic resemblance to the terminal social order of the human race that will be practiced in the New Jerusalem.

4. We know all about the New Jerusalem: “It has a great, high wall with twelve gates, and at the gates twelve angels, and on the gates are inscribed the names of the twelve tribes of the Israelites; on the east three gates, on the north three gates, on the south three gates, and on the west three gates. And the wall of the city has twelve foundations, and on them are the twelve names of the twelve apostles of the Lamb …The city lies foursquare, its length the same as its width; and he measured the city with his rod, fifteen hundred miles; its length and width and height are equal. He also measured its wall, one hundred and forty-four cubits by human measurement, which the angel was using. The wall is built of jasper, while the city is pure gold, clear as glass. The foundations of the wall of the city are adorned with every jewel; the first was jasper, the second sapphire, the third agate, the fourth emerald, the fifth onyx, the sixth cornelian, the seventh chrysolite, the eighth beryl, the ninth topaz, the tenth chrysoprase, the eleventh jacinth, the twelfth amethyst. And the twelve gates are twelve pearls, each of the gates is a single pearl, and the street of the city is pure gold, transparent as glass.” (Revelation 21:12-21)

Related to the eternity of the New Jerusalem is its specific knowability. If we know the precise geometry of the New Jerusalem, the position of God’s throne, the materials of which it will be fashioned, its duration and population, there is little left to discover about it. Furthermore, one of its properties is that it is specifically measurable and describable in the terms of the society of the present day.

Russian Marxists, also steeped in a secularized reading of the Christian eschaton, struggled with this question in the early days of the Soviet Union. Fortunately, Eastern Orthodoxy was much more strongly infused with doctrines of the unknowability of God, descending from the influential theology of the Pseudodionysus, at least permitting people to consider that the New Jerusalem might be so different from the sinful world of the present that those of us implicated therein would be unable to fully envision it. So it was that prior to Stalin’s seizure of power, Lenin’s dictatorship of the proletariat did not claim to be able to fully know what communism would be. For Stalin, on the other hand, and for the Christian West, the terminal dispensation of human history was knowable down to the last detail.

The doctrine of the knowability of the New Jerusalem further reinforces the idea that a local Occupy camp is not so much a witness against capitalism as the socio-economic order that will replace it. Worse yet, it spawns absurd utopian social theories like bioregionalism which design and purport to tell us what a sustainable/eternal society will look like, not just with respect to human geography and infrastructure but in terms of culture and religion.

The desire to refute liberal technocratic dismissals of radical social change feeds into this kind of false omniscience too. The absurd claim that one cannot witness against a thing unless one has designed its replacement is bait to which environmentalists rise all too often.

With the notable exception of Lewis, most environmental thinkers are cowed by this nonsense into one of two equally unrealistic camps: (a) a sustainable society isn’t that different from ours: everyone will ride their bike to solar-powered bullet trains where they video-conference on their IPhones on their way to work or (b) a sustainable society is radically different: we’ll spend our days making art, raising crops and going to interminable unanimity-driven meetings where everybody’s input will be valued and respected.

This kind of thinking doesn’t just produce bad political tactics; it minimizes how hostile to the created world capitalism is and how deeply implicated we are in the system of relationships it entails. Why should people this deeply enmeshed in the society of the present possess the capacity to imagine a society sufficiently different to offer hope for arresting human-caused omnicide?

5. The eschaton be sudden and total: Despite the eloquence of Paul Ehrlich’s metaphor of the boiling frog, the environmental crisis remains, in most people’s thinking, something that has not yet started or, even if it has started, something that will build to a crescendo of massive dislocation and chaos.

But let us consider the much more frightening possibility, that the systems by which global capitalism perpetuates itself are strong enough not just to continue functioning but to create the perception of a stable social order. Often, the most radical reformulations of an ideology or way of life are presented either as continuity with the past or as the restoration of a prior social order, cloaking their unprecedented character. It is in this way that the Roman Catholic Church could transform itself in less than two centuries from the elite gay dating scene of the West and the world’s largest abortion provider into not just an intractable foe of homosexuality and abortion but into an organization that has always been so.

In this way, we may be continuing to anticipate the imminent eschaton even when there are only a few thousand of us living in subterranean caverns, eating vat-grown meat. Habituated, as we are, to biodiversity declining every year, carbon levels and radioactivity rising, we assume that we are situated in the lead-up to the eschaton and not already in the thing itself. This is why witnessing against the interlocking crises is conflated with warning of an impending future disaster when, to paraphrase Babylon 5, the avalanche has already begun – and we are the stones.

6. The eschaton will happen to us: In Revelation, the eschaton is punishment for human iniquity. Thus, while human actions cause the poisoning of the seas, they do so at a remove. It is not us poisoning the seas but rather us behaving so badly that the seas are poisoned as a consequence of the universe’s abhorrence for misbehaviour.

Like stones falling down a mountainside, announcing that an avalanche is coming, we are unable to understand that we, ourselves, are the avalanche. The ecological catastrophe is not some future reaction, avenging, justifying by the biosphere to the damage we are doing to it. We, ourselves, are the catastrophe. Ecological collapse is not a future event in which we will get our comeuppance for our bad behaviour; it is the bad behaviour itself.

Belief in a half-personified avenging Mother Earth who will chastise and scourge us when we have gone too far is a fairy tale the human race, the world’s first self-conscious natural disaster, tells itself. Desperate to be punished for our own misbehaviour, we keep acting out in the irrational hope that dad, or God, will come home and finally sort things out.

In this way, the eschaton is mistakenly understood by environmentalists as the brutal force that will arrest human iniquity. Somehow, things will get so polluted, so toxic, so lethal, so lifeless that the very processes by which we are destroying the world will be arrested. But this is a fairy tale. The worse things get, as material desperation re-enters the equation, the more temptation there will be to double-down on cheap, polluting energy, dangerous or untested chemicals and ecologically destructive military technologies. Unlike the Christian eschaton, we are not bit players in the battle between God and Satan to be judged and scourged. Like it or not, we are both Christ and Antichrist, the scourge of the world.

 

Of course, the biggest problem with the heritage of the Christian eschaton is not its pernicious impact on the environmental movement but on those who hear its warnings. Over the past four score generations, we have learned how to react to the madmen on the street corner or behind the pulpit who proclaim, “repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.” Despite their penetrating social criticism and moral indignation at the evils and hypocrisies of their age, we have learned to take this sort of thing with a grain of salt not because the prophets are wrong but because they are a constant.

The fact that the befouling of the seas and skies is now backed by peer reviewed science is merely incidental, just another of the myriad absurdities of our age. The fact that today’s doomsday cults’ claims about the environment of the near future have finally met the evidentiary standards of the Age of Reason is unexceptional when we remember that such claims, made by other heralds of the eschaton in ages past, were also validated by the epistemologies of their day. The Franciscan mendicants who believed they lived in the end times were among the world’s great scholars in their day and also had the ear of the princes and emperors. And they were just another movement in more than a thousand years of social movements explaining that human iniquity was going to cause a civilization-ending disaster.

Were it not for centuries of habit, we might take seriously the physically unprecedented events of our day and the dire warnings associated with them. But after claiming that Justinian’s corruption and marital infidelity and Arthur’s philandering produced the Darkening of the Sun in 538 and the associated wasteland and making similar claims in every major climate episode since, it seems to our ears, as though the prophets of doom are crying wolf. We didn’t cause the Darkening of the Sun; we didn’t cause the Medieval Warm Period; we didn’t cause the Little Ice Age; why would we have caused the current climate episode? Over the centuries, we have built up an incredible arsenal of emotional equipment to reassure ourselves that what is happening is not caused by us and will stop on its own, and these reactions have been right more often than not.

The David Suzukis of the world fit into the well-established role in the Christian West: the prophet of doom, preaching repentance. They are, at once, honoured as speakers of truth and recognized as part of the background noise of a stable society, utterly domesticated into the social order of their day. Suzuki’s journey from doomsday prophet to lightbulb selling mascot situates him in the grand tradition of Saint Francis of Assisi. And sadly, it situates his message there too, a stern warning to be honoured and heeded, but not too seriously. After all, the eschaton has been impending for two thousand years.

Strategic Voting and the Magical Worldview

I was going to post something completely different today about Vancouver municipal politics but I have been involved in a debate that has driven me to do another reprint post. Here is my pre-2011 Canadian election piece on the ways that magical thinking is producing millions of wasted votes in Canada.

One of the reasons that the four proportional representation referendum campaigns on which I have worked have failed has been the geekery of the electoral reform movement in Canada. We have consistently been so excited about explaining the cool, better system with which we will replace our current first-past-the-post that we have never really put FPTP on trial. As a result, most Canadians have only the vaguest idea of how their votes translate into political outcomes on and after election day. And while Canadians look down our noses at Americans when it comes to our superior knowledge of global institutions and phenomena, the abject negligence of our school curricula in explaining how our system of government functions should be anything but a source of national pride.

In place of any real understanding of how our votes produce political outcomes, Canadians have developed what, as a scholar of religion, I am tempted to term a magical understanding of how we make our political reality. I use the term “magical” in place of the somewhat less offensive “mythological,” advisedly. It is not just that Canadians believe a series of myths about their democracy; their views of how their votes work, in various ways, mirror what we might label magical understandings of the very operations of cause and effect. The magical nature of Canadian political thinking is often obscured through apparently neutral or unprovocative terminology and also by the ubiquity of certain habits of political speech rendering their unreason peculiarly normal. So, in the hopes of challenging some of these understandings, I’m going to make use of my expensive vocabulary of religious terms and analogies to highlight some of magical modes of thought I witness every day.

1.      Eschatological/Apocalyptic Voting: “Did you know nearly half of registered voters didn’t vote last time?” “People all over the country are waking up to what is really going on.” “It’s an election. Anything can happen! Remember Reform in 1993?” “With the Greens finally included in/arbitrarily barred from the debate, people are really going to sit up and take notice.”

These kinds of innocent phrases tend to precede what I characterize as eschatological voting.  Although things have been bleak up until now, the reasoning goes, we are on the verge of a sudden paradigm shift, after which time everybody is going to behave differently. Such thinking is common amongst new converts to small political parties or political movements that make claims of impending disaster if there is not a radical change in the course of things political. Often such thinking is accompanied by very real examples of rapid shifts in political opinion in the past, such as the Reform Party’s 1993 breakthrough.

But beneath the superficially plausible invocations of past events is a mode of thinking more commonly associated with doomsday cults like the Millerites of the nineteenth century who stood, by the thousands, clad in white robes, on roofs all over the American Midwest on the appointed day of Christ’s return. Many of the followers of the Baptist preacher, William Miller, were recent converts whose own sudden experiences of conversion they assumed were about to be shared by millions of their fellow Americans as judgment day drew nigh. Indeed, operating in a volatile, missionary environment, this experience was often affirmed by direct personal experiences of converting others.

Of course, any quantitative look at support for Millerism would have alerted Miller’s followers to the fact that their movement had some retention problems, much like contemporary Green parties. Of course, this was not a huge concern to the Millerites as these sudden conversions were but a minor sign of the impending eschaton, when Christ would return and all would be rectified in his millennial rule. Most signs were “wars and rumours of wars,” “disturbance of the elements” and other bad things that are almost always going on but can be easily narrated as massively escalating by people who have suddenly turned their attention to these things, as, subjectively, they have for these new converts.

Like the Millerites, eschatological voters expect a massive, apocalyptic reordering of society primarily based not on signs that things they like are happening but instead on signs that things that worry them are happening. The very fact that voter turnout has fallen to barely more than 50%, that the tar sands are generating massive pollution, that the Prime Minister brazenly endorses the forging of documents and the withholding of financial information from parliament, etc. are taken not as signs that people concerned about social justice, parliamentary ethics and environmental responsibility are on the defensive but instead that the rectifying political eschaton is imminent, that the millennium is just around the corner when millions of apathetic youth will show up at the polls and elect 200 Green, NDP or Canadian Action Party MPs. In religious discourse, this is called “pre-millennialism,” a theory of history in which our optimistic expectation of Christ’s return and the vanquishing of Babylon by the elect correlates not to positive, measurable signs but to an invisible reaction to ever-worsening signs.

This is very different from the rise of parties like Reform or the Bloc; signs that their popularity was rising was measurable in huge rallies and daily polling showing their popularity waxing every day of the campaign. Although they mobilized many eschatological voters around the impending break-up of Canada and the belief that the elections of the 1990s were make-or-break for the federation, their rise was confirmed by signs of their growing popularity and mobilization and not, as in the case of today’s non-parliamentary parties, increasing disorganization, demobilization and falling poll numbers.

Eschatological voting inverts conventional understandings of cause and effect: fringe personal experiences that cause one to join small groups are irrationally generalized to people not joining these groups; signs of defeat and loss are taken as signs of impending victory; the absence of evidence of a phenomenon is taken as indicative of its magnitude.

For the eschatological voter, casting a ballot is not about trying to figure out how to elect the best possible MP in their riding. Such considerations are not part of the calculation because literally ANYTHING could happen this time, given how fed-up people are. Voting is more like donning a white robe and reporting early to the roof to join in the rectifying eschaton that will inaugurate the millennial kingdom when the powerless shall be uplifted and comforted and wield power over their former oppressors.

2.      Homeric/Sympathetic Voting: “The more people who vote Green, the better environmental policies will be.” “The more people who vote for parties that elect no MPs, the more pressure there will be to bring in proportional representation.” “Every vote for this cause will make a difference.” These are some of the apparently benign catchphrases that underpin Homeric or sympathetic voting.

Karl Popper first identified this kind of thinking in his seminal essay on conspiracy thinking in which he observed that conspiracy theories are often premised on the idea that conspirators’ intentions are translated directly into real world outcomes, unmediated by any theory of causation. If the Rothschilds and other important families, for instance, are rich and powerful, one can reasonably conclude that most political and financial events must be what they intend to happen without ever having to consider the specific mechanisms by which these events might be brought about. In this way, vast global conspiracies can be understood by looking at major events, assuming them to be intentional and then assigning the intent to cause them to whatever powerful, semi-secret clique on which the conspiracy theory is based.

Popper was clever in tracing this kind of reasoning to the epics of Homer in which events in the world are understood to reflect the conflicts between the gods in the world above. Real world outcomes proceed directly from the resolution of competing divine intentions with minimal operational explanation. This is because such a worldview doesn’t really understand causation in a conventional way. Things don’t happen because they are caused by other things but because they correspond to a higher reality. Imagine reading Midsummer Night’s Dream minus the character of Puck. This might trouble many of us in that the causal link between the faerie kingdom and the duchy would vanish; without Puck, there would be no explanation of how events in the faerie realm caused events in the mortal world. A Homeric worldview is unconcerned with such links; it is simply self-evident that as the familial, social and political order of the faerie world is restored, an identical process will unfold in the mortal realm.

Many Canadians believe in Homeric democracy, that if twice as many people vote Green, the country will become twice as Green, irrespective of where the votes are cast or whether they result in the election of candidates. For them, national popular vote shares reflect a superior reality and the day-to-day events in parliament, business and society will naturally correspond with that higher reality through some kind of unseen sympathetic magic. The lessons of the post-Nader US wherein progressive politics have yet to recover from the disaster of the 2000 election have little effect because, fundamentally, the Homeric worldview arises from the inability to ask a crucial question: how do these particular votes cause a particular outcome?

3.      Microcosmic/Macrocosmic Voting: One of the biggest challenges I faced when campaigning for proportional representation was the widespread belief that it was already in force in Canada. The assumption on many voters’ parts was that the share of the seats in parliament did, in fact, correspond to the share of the vote a party received. If this didn’t happen, it was because not all electoral districts had the same population or too few young people came out to vote. Worse yet, this discrepancy was understood to be caused by strategic voting – if everybody who really planned to vote for a party actually did, the party’s share of the seats really would match their vote share because that’s the kind of outcome the voting system was designed to produce provided everyone showed up, was properly educated and voted based on their true intentions.

Although, as per the basic Homeric assumptions of many voters, the means by which a set of geographically-drawn electoral districts with variegated populations could produce such outcomes was never really an issue, I came to realize that this wasn’t simple Homeric reasoning. This kind of thinking was based on the idea that everybody’s votes were being dumped into a single pool and MPs were being doled-out to ridings based on their party’s national vote share. In essence, proportional representation was already in effect – our would be, if only districting panels and voters behaved properly.  Similar to Homeric voting, there was an appealing sense that in some way never explained, the correct voting behaviour in every riding was the same as in any other riding because, effectively, there are no ridings in this reality; just a big national pot into which all the votes go and out of which comes fairness and correct representation. For many magical thinkers in Canadian politics, there is an assumption that one’s local electoral district is a perfect microcosm of the nation’s politics and whatever would be the right move in a 308-member at-large district electing MPs by proportional representation is the right thing to do in one’s own single-member district.

Of course, the most pernicious magical thinking in this area goes one step further and is practiced most frequently by shills for the Liberal Party of Canada and comes from a rich tradition of microcosm-macrocosm reasoning from classical Aristotle to the Social Darwinists of the Gilded Age. Instead of conceiving of a 308-member at-large district centred in Ottawa, true microcosmic magic derives from the belief that every riding is a perfect microcosm of the nation’s politics. If the Liberals are in second place nationally behind the Conservatives, it only makes sense to vote Liberal if one is anti-Conservative because the politics of the nation are recapitulated in 308 identical microcosms from Labrador City to Prince Rupert.

Appearances are deceiving. Sure, your riding might have an NDP MP, no French-speakers, five Indian Reserves and no public transit but it if it is established fact, by virtue of the latest Nanos poll, that the Liberals are in second place; so you must switch your vote from NDP to Liberal, even if the Liberal candidate came third last time. To do otherwise, will allow Stephen Harper to win.

What makes this kind of thinking magical as opposed to merely wrong is that none of its practitioners imagine that local ridings don’t exist or really are identical. Instead, they appear unable to entertain the idea that the local manifestation of a phenomenon can be anything other than a perfect and identical microcosm of the whole phenomenon. Neolithic peoples worshipping idols at temples did not construct the whole presence and attention of the same divinity at some other temple as a problem any more than young children construct the presence of Santa Claus at all the other malls as an issue or medieval people objected to the presence of the same saint’s relics at multiple churches. The idol/church/Christmas display they were at functioned as a perfect microcosm in that it was identical with the macrocosmic reality, not a representative or conduit but the reality itself. Eaton Centre Santa isn’t a piece of a bigger Santa; he’s not one of many equally valid Santas; he certainly isn’t a distinctive unique Santa with his own personality. He is the one and only true and omnipresent Santa.

4.      Incarnational Voting: I am indebted to Mormon theologian James Faulconer for this final category of magical thinking about voting. In trying to perform the Herculean task of explaining how the narrative in the Book of Mormon is true, Faulconer compared the act of reading Mormon scripture to medieval Roman Catholic understandings of the Eucharist. The reasoning goes like this: the truth lies in the act itself not in things to which the act refers. In other words, the host doesn’t represent the body of Christ; it doesn’t refer to the Last Supper as an historical event; it IS the body of Christ during mass. In this model, the mass doesn’t represent Christ’s atoning sacrifice; it IS Christ’s atoning sacrifice while it is going on. In the same way, Faulconer argues, the Book of Mormon narrative need not represent events external to itself; it need not refer to anything; the story simply IS true while it is being read/told/enacted. Anthropologists have made similar cases to oral storytelling cultures in indigenous communities; legends are not really referring to what their listeners comprehend as past or future events; they simply ARE true during their enactment.

For many voters in Monday’s election, their vote will be an incarnational experience. Their placing an “X” next to the name of a candidate will not really refer to the candidate or comment on her. Furthermore, thanks to our dysfunctional voting system, the vote will probably not contribute to the election of that candidate. But for the Liberal voter in the Saguenay or Vancouver Island, for an NDP voter in Brampton, Mississauga or Calgary or for a Green voter pretty much anywhere, their vote will be vested with magical importance because, in the privacy of the polling booth, for a few brief moments as they perform the ritual of marking their “X,” they will be like a Catholic priest ritually incarnating a Green, NDP or Liberal government. Their vote need not refer to their local candidate or result in their candidate’s election because the vote’s significance will inhere in the ritual action itself, because during that ritual, the outcome described on the ballot will be fleetingly true.

Of all forms of magical voting, this is the most pernicious. Instead of being premised on false ideas about how a real world electoral outcome will result from the vote, the vote is, in and of itself, a sufficient, true and real electoral outcome. When per-vote financing was first introduced, Green Party candidates would attempt to claim that the transfer of $1.75 per year was an external electoral outcome that was precipitated by such an act. But that particular piece of rhetoric was ultimately abandoned because it cheapened the powerful experience of incarnating the government one truly desires through a ritualized performance.

Ultimately, the self-sufficient and transcendent character of thinking about one’s vote in this way actually points to a profound cynicism and pessimism. Just as the incarnational reading of and interaction with the Book of Mormon is designed to obscure the disenchantment of a constituency of believers who have stopped believing that it tells the story of ancient America, just as Eucharistic practice became the centre of Christianity only when hopes of Jesus’ imminent return were dashed, incarnational voting really just covers up despair. People have given up hope that we can really use our votes to make governments that can build the kind of society in which we want to live and so we console ourselves by making the ritualized act of voting the centre of our political culture instead of focusing on the outcomes our votes might produce.

“Ideology” is the Wrong Word: What We Can Learn About Modern Capitalism from the Ancient Mediterranean

Aberdeen University’s Steve Mason, a scholar of the ancient Mediterranean world, was kind enough, nearly a decade ago, to seek my feedback on a fascinating article he produced on the origins of the term “Judaism.” While the peoples of the ancient Mediterranean were well acquainted with the state of Judea and ideas of Jewishness, the term “Judaism,” it turns out, was a rare and peculiar term. “Ιουδαϊσμός” and “Iudaismus” were largely absent from pre-Christian scripture, having been introduced in the apocryphal second and fourth books of the Maccabees, written in the two centuries prior to the Christian era.

When the use of the term finally did take off, it was not in documents written by Jews, who did not begin making use of it until the fifth century, but instead in Christian writings. Saints Paul and Ignatius introduced the term early on and by the third century, it caught on as an important piece of terminology as Christians argued with each other about who they were and what they stood for.

Back then, however, other terms were used to refer to the customs and traditions of the Jews. Our modern sense of “-ism” (originating from the Greek “-ισμός” via the Latin “-ismus”), referring to an ideology or set of beliefs, like Marxism or liberalism, was not one of the possible meanings this suffix held. So much of Mason’s work in the article was to excavate what, exactly, this term meant when it began to appear in early Christian writing.

It turns out that the original “Judaism” of the Christian Bible, both in Maccabees and in New Testament writings, actually refers to something much less abstract. The original “Judaism,” against which Pauline Christians inveighed, referred to the process of turning into a Jew. The Judaizers, an important faction in early Christianity, responsible for the Gospel of Matthew, believed that circumcision and keeping kosher were essential Christian practices for converts of all ethnicities, be they Gauls, Greeks, Romans or Numidians. Judaism, until the fifth century, was not the ideology of Jewishness but instead the process of changing into a Jew.

Mason’s discovery has major theological implications for how Christians read their scripture. But I am not interested in talking about them here. Instead I want to momentarily reverse the linguistic transformation of Late Antiquity in which our current meaning attached to “-ism” and see what light the earlier one can shed on the modern age.

People claim that capitalism is set of teachings or ideology. But is that how people really experience it? Generally, when people speak about capitalist ideology, they do not use the term. Nobody talks about believing in capitalism. People will identify with particular schools of thought within capitalism, advocating variously for “liberalism,” “free enterprise,” “the free market,” “progressivism” or “objectivism,” or they will inveigh against “casino capitalism,” “crony capitalism,” or “state capitalism.” And yet we all agree that capitalism shapes our daily experience as modern Anglo-Americans. Perhaps we should consider the possibility that the ways in which capitalism shapes our lives long ago transcended the merely ideological.

Could it be that capitalism is better understood in the ancient Greek sense, not as a set of teachings or principles, but as the experience of being transformed into capital itself? What if we understand capitalism not as something that people believe in but as something that is happening to us all? As current tort law attests, our bodies were turned into capital some time ago. And as the market extends further into the realm of the intangible, rendering our aesthetic preferences and ideological loyalties commodities to be extracted and traded via Facebook and the ubiquitous corporate “rewards” cards, as our very thoughts come to be commodified and financially commodified through intellectual property laws, capitalism has transformed from a mere ideology to a universal and inescapable experience of being transformed into capital itself.