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The Dark Benedict Option

From Adam Tooze’s take in the London Review of Books [1] on a new book, How Will Capitalism End? [2], by the left-wing German economist Wolfgang Streeck:

In one disarming passage he describes capitalism as a ‘a non-violent, civilised mode of material self-enrichment through market exchange’. What makes capitalism toxic is its expansiveness, its relentless colonisation of the rest of society. Drawing on Karl Polanyi, Streeck insists that capitalism destroys its own foundations. It undermines the family units on which the reproduction of labour depends; it consumes nature; it commodifies money, which to function has to rest on a foundation of social trust. For its own good, capitalism needs political checks. The significance of 2008 and what has happened since is that it is now clear these checks are no longer functioning. Instead, as it entered crisis, capitalism overran everything: it forced the hand of parliaments; it drove up state debts at taxpayers’ expense at the same time as aggressively rolling back what remained of the welfare state; the elected governments of Italy and Greece were sacrificed; referendums were cancelled or ignored.

More:

It didn’t take long for [Jürgen] Habermas to pick up the gauntlet. In 2013 he accused Streeck of ‘nostalgia’ in favouring a retreat to ‘national fortresses’. Earlier this year Streeck retorted that Habermas favoured a ‘political universalism’ that vainly tried ‘to match the infinite universalistic advance of money and markets’; apparently Habermas regarded ‘the predetermined course of historical evolution [as] normatively desirable and technically necessary at the same time’. Why, Streeck demanded to know, should we fall in with ‘Angela Merkel and her frivolous claim that, “If the euro fails, Europe fails” – identifying a two-thousand-year-old cultural and political landscape of grandiose jointly produced diversity with a trivial utilitarian construction that happens to serve above all the interests of the German export industries’. Around the same time, dismissing Martin Sandbu’s vigorous defence of the euro, he vented his criticism of Merkel’s refugee policy. It was, in his view, another vain, modernist social-engineering project backed by Germany’s employers and the opportunistic Merkel. What’s more, it was an ‘object lesson in what other countries can expect from Germany acting European’, which means in practice an attack on national autonomy, as Germany’s elite identify ‘their control of Europe with a post-nationalism understood as anti-nationalism, which in turn is understood as the quintessential lesson of German history’.

And, in Streeck’s view:

We should be bracing ourselves for a prolonged and agonising decomposition of the entire social fabric. It has been said that it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism: Streeck believes we may one day witness the proof of that. Capitalism will end not because it faces serious opposition but because over the course of the coming decades and centuries it can be relied on to consume and destroy its own foundations. We should expect ever intensifying stagnation, inequality, the plundering of the public domain, corruption and the escalating risk of major war, all of this accompanied by a pervasive erosion of social order, generalised social entropy. Indeed, according to Streeck we have at least since the 1970s been living in what he refers to as a ‘post-social society … a society lite’. We cope individually with conditions of increasing uncertainty, while at the macro level both society and economy become increasingly ungovernable. ‘Life in a society of this kind,’ he writes, ‘demands constant improvisation, forcing individuals to substitute strategy for structure, and offers rich opportunities to oligarchs and warlords while imposing uncertainty and insecurity on all others, in some ways like the long interregnum that began in the fifth century CE and is now called the Dark Age.’

Read the whole thing.  [1] I think it’s obvious why the reader who sent me the link was thinking of the Benedict Option.

It’s my sense that many people think of the Benedict Option as a quasi-Chestertonian romantic exercise in Christian communalism and nostalgia. As this piece makes clear — and note again that Streeck is on the left — it is more deeply a matter of building the religious and communal structures that give us believing Christians a chance at holding on to the faith through the “long interregnum” to come. The struggle ahead for us is primarily one of holding on to faith through the fragmenting, scattering tumult upon us, but it is not only that, not by a long shot. I believe Streeck is right about economic life, which cannot be cleanly separated from spiritual and social life. The scope of this problem was far beyond the scope of The Benedict Option [3], and, to be honest, beyond my ability to write about meaningfully as an analyst. The work chapter is mostly about how Christians should prepare individually and communally for a world in which they are denied access to certain professions and lines of work because of their faith.

It is my fervent hope that Christian economists and political economists will take the basic Ben Op paradigm and write deeply on a Christian response to the crisis of capitalist civilization that Streeck identifies. What I find so interesting about the quoted passages above is that the socialist Streeck identifies the importance of holding on to national identity and solidarity around such in the face of a globalized capitalism and deracinated modernism that stands to dissolve a 2,000 year old tradition.

Notice what’s happening here: Wolfgang Streeck is taking on the Eurocratic postmodern, globalizing left (e.g., Jürgen Habermas) from the left, in defense of the nation. Similarly, we are seeing people emerge on the right taking on the globalizing right from the same standpoint. What is so difficult for many on both sides of the spectrum to understand is that the libertarian market über alles ideology that seeks to obliterate borders, and that cares nothing about the individuals, families, and communities disrupted by the “creative destruction” of capitalism is the same ideology that, applied in the social sphere, seeks to obliterate customs, traditions, and institutions like the family, for the sake of giving maximum liberty (“liberty”) to the atomized individual.

For a more accessible to the lay reader take on the thesis in Streeck’s book, try this review [4]. Excerpt:

Not by a long shot, argues Streeck, as there’s no successor to our disintegrating capitalist system in sight, certainly not socialism. The progressive visions of social democracy or democratic socialism are simply no match for the disorder and reactionary currents that globalisation’s collapse enables.

“There is no such thing as a global socialist movement,” says Streeck, “comparable to the socialisms of the nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries [which] so successfully confronted capitalism in national power struggles.”

He cites as evidence the way the Greek leftist party Syriza buckled under pressure from the global financial institutions to accept austerity measures from which the country cannot recover.

Rather, a chaotic, violent interregnum will force the super-wealthy to fend for themselves, having given up any pretence to care about the social good or democracy, while the masses strike out blindly in anger. Oligarchs and populists, from both the left and the right, will rule the roost, riding discontent and further destabilizing “the post-war capitalist way of life without even a hint as to how stability might be restored”. Streeck sees the coming of an ungovernable Dark Age with rich opportunities for warlords and dictators.

This is a grim dystopia, even for a post-Marxist. Of course, we’ve heard before from leftist thinkers that the sky is falling on our heads, only to wake up to a new day and a new form of capitalism. Like Marx, Streeck is stronger in his critique of capitalism than in his vision for what might follow it.

But, make no mistake, the interregnum is upon us and there is no progressive alternative in sight. Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci’s famous remark in the 1920s is just as valid today: “The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.”

One of those morbid symptoms’ names is Donald Trump.

This is important. Streeck does not believe that socialism is the answer. He doesn’t seem to believe that anybody has the answer. We are all flying blind. But the fact that neither Streeck nor I have a solution to the crisis we’re all facing now — and it’s by no means simply an economic crisis — does not mean that the crisis isn’t real. I offer The Benedict Option [3]not as a “solution,” but as a model for thinking through and living out at the local level a stable, resilient, authentically Christian life, from which solutions may arise. Remember, the “solutions” to the problems engulfing Europe after the fall of the Western Roman Empire, which took down the economic, political, and social system that had ruled that part of the world since time out of mind, did not emerge for centuries after the collapse. But these solutions emerged out of the  patient, imperfect work of the Church, and especially of the monasteries.

The best we can hope for is to create the conditions for these things to happen. And note well: St. Benedict and his monks did not set out looking for “solutions” to the problem of how to live meaningfully and well amid the chaos of post-imperial Rome. They set out look for how to serve God and each other in Christian community. Everything else followed. So it will have to be with us. My point here is simply to highlight the fact that the Ben Op is not something for Christian hobbyists who love old liturgies and a romanticized Middle Ages. It’s key to our survival. In the introductory chapter to his book (the only part that can be read on Amazon), Streeck says the interregnum we’ve entered into is one in which the institutions that gave the individual some sort of collective protection have broken down, and we are now all on our own, more or less. What social protection there is will be accomplished on a local, ad hoc basis, driven by basic needs and desires — including fear.

This will not be a happy time. Streeck — again, from the secular left — says that one thing that is preventing people from realizing the seriousness of what’s happening is their unwillingness to confront the depths of the crisis. Streeck:

Life under social entropy elevates being optimistic to the status of a public virtue and civic responsibility. In fact, one can say that even more than capitalism in its heyday, the entropic society of disintegrated, de-structured and under-governed post-capitalism depends on its ability to hitch itself onto the natural desire of people not to feel desperate, while defining pessimism as a socially harmful personal deficiency.

Hope, which is grounded in realism, is not the same thing as optimism. While the world is collapsing around us, the church leaders are making shoeboxes and staging pantomimes [5]. Let them make shoeboxes and wish upon a star, and let left-wing celebrities bleat and Donald Trump tweet. You and me? Let’s get serious. Let’s prepare.  [3]

73 Comments (Open | Close)

73 Comments To "The Dark Benedict Option"

#1 Comment By Heartright On January 11, 2017 @ 7:07 am

JonF:

Any government policy that permits individual Choice.

Remember: the total absence of Law beyond Might makes Right IS the default option. People are not persons to begin with, personhood is a legal fiction, like property rights and legal tender.

#2 Comment By Fran Macadam On January 11, 2017 @ 8:46 am

I agree in theory with Rod’s aim; but, how does that happen in practice when the churches themselves have failed? That is, when you are so few that you are left on your own, to your own devices, when you’re told (for instance) your church “is not a community that can meet your needs”? It seems to me that so far it’s long on very good theory, but may fall short in practice, where the rubber meets the road and the devil is in the details. What makes it more than the spiritual equivalent of the “get rich quick” books that promise a fix, but don’t deliver? Or is it just a needed start to get people thinking about what they might be able to do, if they have the resources and are lucky? Believe me, I’d love for it to succeed since the desperation we feel is palpable – and certainly far from the unrealistic anxiety of the person who was frightened of their plumber.

#3 Comment By Rob G On January 11, 2017 @ 8:50 am

“We have ask ourselves why it is the socialist anti capitalist left that is championing transgender ideology.”

The cultural Left is not substantively anti-capitalist. They talk a good game but for them when push comes to shove identity politics will trump class issues every time.

The corporate Right (what Del Noce calls the technocratic right), on the other hand, has basically harnessed the Sexual Revolution for its own ends, which is why corporate America is almost fully on board with all the multi-culti, sexual liberation crap.

Radical individualism is at the root of both, obviously. What’s different is how it plays itself out on either side.

The chief stupidity of both the mainstream Left and mainstream Right lies in their failure (or unwillingness) to see how these corrosive “liberties” are simply the flip sides of one another, and work together to subvert each side’s more noble desires.

#4 Comment By Carolyn On January 11, 2017 @ 10:18 am

Is it fair to lay our current crisis at the feet of capitalism? Is it really capitalism, or is it a deeper commitment (ideology) that is driving our decline? I find Patrick Deneen’s arguments in “Unsustainable Liberalism” very compelling, and I think some of his observations are similar to those of Streeck (i.e, propensity to self-destruction), but Deneen identifies the deeper source of cultural destruction as liberalism itself because of its radically different anthropological assumptions (as compared to previous medieval anthropological assumptions). [6]

#5 Comment By Chris 1 On January 11, 2017 @ 11:25 am

One of the reasons I have a favourable view of Vladimir Putin’s Russia is it’s ability to work with the Orthodox Church to address these deep societal problems in Russia that have been the legacy of nearly a century of materialism first of the Soviet Socialist state and later of the predatory capitalism that emerged in Russia under Boris Yeltsin.

This view of Putin is not shared by many in the ROC, but seems popular among non-Orthodox in the West. It’s almost as if there’s been a push in the west to mythologize Putin and his actions…

#6 Comment By connecticut farmer On January 11, 2017 @ 12:10 pm

“Hope, which is grounded in realism, is not the same thing as optimism.”

Christopher Lasch wrote almost these exact words in his seminal “True and Only Heaven”.

Looking forward to March and the arrival of “The Benedict Option”.

#7 Comment By JonF On January 11, 2017 @ 1:53 pm

Re: Any government policy that permits individual Choice.

If you think government is capable of eliminating indivudsual choice, you are smoking something that is illegal even in Colorado. Should the government tell me which shirt to wear today? What to make for dinner?
That’s not possible– and it shouldn’t be. The Lord God Himself wanted creatures with free will, not pre-programmed automata. Moreover government is derivative of human choices. Like it or not, the point of true convergence in human affairs is the individual person.

#8 Comment By Joshua Chamberlain On January 11, 2017 @ 2:28 pm

What is “capitalism”?

#9 Comment By grumpy realist On January 11, 2017 @ 2:44 pm

To those who moan about the government supporting single mothers: what else would you suggest? That they be kicked out into the gutters to beg instead? That they put up with being beaten, kicked, and abused by the guy they are with? That we stuff them in Magdalene laundries to work long hours and get chastised for their “sins” and put their children up for adoption?

Those “good old days” weren’t all that great for a lot of people, I hope you realize. And if your so-called “solution” to the problem has anything involving a double-standard where the women get punished and the men walk away as they wish, no thank you. We already have seen how that works out historically.

#10 Comment By Heartright On January 11, 2017 @ 2:47 pm

Au contraire, Jon.

In the absence of Government you are unlikely to live long enough to realise what a shirt is.
In the absence of Governance no company arises that produces shirts.
In the absence of Governance no cotton is grown beyond minimalist local requirements.
In the absence of Governance there is no sufficient money supply.
In the absence of Governance there is not sufficient tranquility to produce anything beyond the levels you can observe in Somalia.

Free will is of course a manifest absurdity.

We know with great precision what 100 hungry People in front of an unsupervised foodsupply will do. We also know with great precision what they will do when the supply is protective and Little red death dots warn them of the consequences.
It follows that we can command their response to that food supply:It is stimulus-response and Skinner Boxes all the way down.

Ergo, no such animal as free will.
And since you ask, it is certainly my contention that Government has the authority to describe what you must eat.

Insurgency can be contained, see Aleppo.

#11 Comment By Heartright On January 11, 2017 @ 2:56 pm

Of course, Chris 1?

Ever heard of el Cid?
When the people tire of TPTB,any sufficiently impressive enemy of TPTB becomes a Culture Hero.

Putin, el Cid, Zorro, Dick Turpin, Horst Wessel, the supply is infinite, as is the demand.

#12 Comment By JonF On January 11, 2017 @ 8:00 pm

Re: In the absence of Government

???
Why the long litany of “In the absence of government”? Do yo think I am proposing anarchy? Where in the world do you get that out of my posts? I am backing LIMITED government (with consent of the governed). This is profoundly different from “no government.

#13 Comment By Heartright On January 12, 2017 @ 2:08 am

Jon: i do not think it necessary to add ‘limited’ or ‘consent’ into the discussion.
Those are optional, not mandatory.

The operation of Governance does not rely on those options.
The validity of Governance does not rely on those options.

It follows that there is no need to bring to bring them into the conversation, as the world continues to turn and the sun continues to shine in the complete absence of limitations or consent.

And at the end of it, there is no need to bring Up free will either. The idea is nonsensical, and even if it somehow was valid, the free will of the ant is meaningless in the face of the mechanical operation of the boot.

For the idea of human Agency in Governance: Little Britain, Vicky Pollard, Computer Says No.
Simply put: there are always more than enough utterly mediocre people who greatly enjoy rigidly applying doctrine in a deliberately unthinking fashion – probably tinged with a very human taste for Sadism. The vast majority of Humanity, i should say.

Government is perfectly capable of eliminating your individual choice, and that was after all your question.

#14 Comment By Ronald Pavellas On January 12, 2017 @ 4:07 am

I am not a practicing Christian, although it seems my original family’s values were in consonance with those attributed to Jesus Christ. I cannot easily follow and understand such voluminous and detailed arguments as found above and elsewhere. The ‘problem’ is not ‘capitalism’ or any ‘ism’. It seems, to me, the problem is our general failure to embrace in our lives the reality of The Transcendent, however labeled. Simply put, we have (or behave as if we have) elevated Man above That Which Made Him. The Greeks knew–> Hybris.

#15 Comment By Mia On January 12, 2017 @ 11:37 am

“One of the reasons I have a favourable view of Vladimir Putin’s Russia is it’s ability to work with the Orthodox Church to address these deep societal problems in Russia that have been the legacy of nearly a century of materialism first of the Soviet Socialist state and later of the predatory capitalism that emerged in Russia under Boris Yeltsin.”

You are aware that the Soviets also co-opted the Orthodox Church in the past, so I’m not sure willingness to work together means what you think it means. I remember when I was in Russian classes during perestroika that the dissidents who taught us were not super impressed with me starting to wear an Orthodox cross (I just liked that style of cross and had a friend in the faith, thought it was a sign of my linguistic interests too) since they saw it as a sign of capitulation and collaboration. I don’t know much about it now, but they have a pretty mixed track record.

#16 Comment By JonF On January 12, 2017 @ 1:22 pm

Re: do not think it necessary to add ‘limited’ or ‘consent’ into the discussion.

There is a tremendous need to modify our terms. A crude discussion on vast first-order generalities is quite useless and disconnected from messym nuanced reality– like trying to balance your check book knowing only that you have income and expenses but no idea of the details of either. And from a moral standpoint “Nothing in Excess” applies.
And no, even with today’s technology governments cannot eliminate personal choice. I feel like I am arguing with someone from a far distant future where (some) humans have evolved supernal abilities that could make creating a Borg-like entelechy a real possibility. Well, that’s not my argument to have; I’ll leave it to that far distant future.

#17 Comment By Siarlys Jenkins On January 12, 2017 @ 1:23 pm

The operation of Governance does not rely on those options.

True.

The validity of Governance does not rely on those options.

That is a value judgment. It is false, if one values those options.

El Cid was a pretty typical soldier of fortune who offered his sword to a variety of petty kinglets, Christian and Muslim, and was transformed into an ex post facto legend after several demographic shifts over the succeeding centuries.

#18 Comment By Heartright On January 12, 2017 @ 7:38 pm

Jon, I think the events leading to Abu Ghraib prove you wrong: men will behave a certain predictable way unless Skinner-boxed into another way.

And returning to the original question: single motherhood does not become economically viable, unless a Government games a positive decision that a single female is a person in the eye of the law, entitled to have rights, capable of having chattels and or real estate, capable of being party to agreements ( eg. buying food ).

There is no legal personality without a positive action, and that is not the default option.

This is simple a matter of icecold calculation in which personal values may annotate, but do not affect the outcomes. It does not do to forget that the default-state of man is closer to Hell than to the Garden of Eden. Dismal short brutish lives lived out in permanent terror – you ought to sample some KhoiSan ( Bushmen ) art if you ever get the chance.

That none of us present ( or so I assume since i certainly think it is a terribly bad idea ) actually think it is a great idea to treat women as cattle, does not alter the reality that a lot of systems lead to exactly that outcome.

Siarlys, I think the value question becomes a very moot point, once it is shown that the alternative to bending over backwards involves the risk of annihilation. Governance relies on Coercion. The only question is how plainly visible that is.

Actually, I think that is the thing that explains the irrational response to the Syrian conflict: WEIRDS get very disconcerted and act irrational when faced with a situation where the alternative to complete submission ( to an impersonal Authority that considers disobedient subjects liabilities rather than assets) is annihilation, and they become both irrational and ineffective. You know, what you might call sheer funk, or panic.

That is true even if they have no skin in the actual game.

#19 Comment By Heartright On January 12, 2017 @ 8:07 pm

And then there are Elizabeth Batory and Vlad the Impaler, Siarlys.

If anything, Putin and el Cid are well above the average Cultural Hero when it comes to Kindness and Considerate behaviour. ( Homer dedicated 8 of his 10 ‘books’ to disposing of the cads. And with good reason. Killing their own daughters, raping Godesses… Tut tut. )

#20 Comment By Fran Macadam On January 13, 2017 @ 9:49 am

“I remember when I was in Russian classes during perestroika that the dissidents who taught us were not super impressed with me starting to wear an Orthodox cross”

For some people, it’s always 1972, and Solzhenitsyn is still living in exile from the Soviets in Vermont.

Meanwhile:

[7]

#21 Comment By Tom G On January 13, 2017 @ 1:44 pm

Capitalism is the economic system which says that private individuals, or legal (group) persons, are able to own property.
With the gov’t determining the definition of property, as well as enforcing the ownership rights of the legal owners.

Market capitalism, which is usually just called capitalism, allows free humans to buy and sell, by agreement, the various property rights. It also allows agreements on services. The gov’t enforces these contracts.

Market capitalism has created a super-abundance of production, including an agreed upon distribution of the wealth increase (profit!).

Crony-capitalism, looks quite like market capitalism, but is hugely influenced by gov’t regulations and/or financial favors so that the gov’t chosen firms get the profit.

#22 Comment By Heartright On January 13, 2017 @ 6:03 pm

Tom G: about a decade ago I read several histories and surveys of English market towns.
Succesful market towns do not happen unless both Govt regulation and market conditions conspire to make it happen. Succesful market towns do not come into being without a luxuriant dose of regulation, and no dose of regulation can magically make a succesful market town appear where the market conditions do not beckon her.

The landscape of England is dotted with examples of that blessed conjuction not happening – failed market towns that remain nothing but tiny village unworthy of the appelation of town.

A succesful market that does not fit into your parameters for Crony Capitalism is a magical unicorn.

There is only Crony Capitalism.

#23 Comment By Chris Cosmos On January 15, 2017 @ 1:25 pm

We are seeing a dramatic change unfolding before our eyes. Indeed society is disintegrating but along with that there is an emergency of something new and, as yet inchoate. I don’t think doctrinaire Benedict Option Christian communities are going to to very far–it depends on cant and a variety of the Pharisee mentality that is ultimately self-destructive. I think the post-capitalist world (we are there already and have been for some time) is impossible to roll back. We live already in a neo-feudal world where bandits and criminals rule most major public and private institutions. The next step is just to face reality after decades of massive delusions and a powerful mind-control regime that the internet has begun to crack and move on to recreating communities. This will unfold naturally once that truth is faced that the commercial media and the government at all levels is lying totally and a new networked-based structure will emerge. Capitalism or socialism are ideas that have no bearing on our present or our future.