Against Moralistic Therapeutic Totalitarianism
I have received some of the best comments from readers about retired Catholic theologian Larry Chapp’s short essays, which I’ve published in this space. I was pleased to wake up this morning and find another one from him in my in-box. I count myself fortunate to be in a position of publishing them in this space.
Below is an essay Larry titles “The Collective Of Concupiscence.” In it, he pretty much sums up my take on the current political and social situation, though I have some post-election thoughts to add at the end. First, here’s Larry:
There is talk in some quarters of Oprah Winfrey running for President in 2020. My response to this is, why not? If Donald Trump can be President a man whose only qualification for the job seems to be that he is a rich celebrity, then any rich celebrity can be President I guess.
What all of this probably points to, sadly, is how utterly exhausted and bankrupt our politics has become, with Americans by the millions turning away from the more experienced political insiders in favor of outsiders who promise us that they alone can provide the radical change that is needed. And everyone seems to agree that radical change is indeed needed, so long as “radical change” means ripping the Band-Aids off of everyone else’s scabs but mine. Radical change can also mean, rather simply, that you want the power that the ruling party possesses transferred to your party. Which is to say, no change at all, which is why you have to lie about it.
For example, in our last election, “Drain the swamp!” was the mantra of the Trump supporters. But did anyone really expect that the man we elected, a swamp creature if ever there were one, would be able to do this? And what, exactly, does one do with a drained swamp anyway? Probably sell it to developers who would build overpriced, poorly made, beige and boring condos, nicely accessorized with a strip mall complete with a Dunkin Donuts and a Vape shop. In other words, just a different kind of swamp. The Democrats prefer the fevered swamp of coercive governmental power, whereas the Republicans prefer the fetid swamp of corporate greed. So all we have really done is trade Lenin for Bezos.
Oh, I can hear people now… “Damn it Chapp, you are always so negative about politics and America. You have to live in the real world and the real world is never perfect!” If you are in that cloud of critics, then I can say to you that you are correct about one thing: nothing in this world is wholly perfect. But that does not mean that there aren’t degrees of imperfection. To deny this is to deny that there is such a thing as truth – a truth that acts as the barometer for all of our actions, political or otherwise.
Therefore, my claim is this, a claim that you can take or leave as you see fit, but a claim I stand by with full conviction: the contemporary American socio economic-political system is predicated in a foundational way on a profound and tragic falsehood. It is a false first principle shared by every major governmental and economic institution in this country and it stands in total contradiction to the Christian faith.
This false first principle can be stated simply and then its logical conclusions can be teased out as follows: God is irrelevant to the construction of government and our public life together, which is to say, God does not exist, which is to say, nothing spiritual or supernatural exists, which is to say that we are all purely material beings with no purpose or goal or end beyond the satisfaction of our individual desires, which is to say that pleasure (the satisfaction of our base desires) is more rooted in reality than happiness (the joy and peace that comes from pursuing the higher spiritual realities like the moral good). Indeed, according to this false principle, the spiritual dimension of life and the moral good are, at best, “noble lies,” and at worst repressive illusions – repressive, since their pursuit often inhibits the attainment of pleasure.
The late Italian philosopher Augusto del Noce, building on this same insight (that our culture is founded on a false first principle: God does not matter), points out that the ruling philosophy that our culture has adopted as a replacement for God and religion is the philosophy known as “scientism”. In a nutshell, scientism is the belief that only the hard, empirical sciences give us access to truth. Everything else is an illusion. Therefore, when it comes to our common life together as a people — a life that comes to be defined, regulated and controlled by government and corporate elites — there is only one form of reason that is “allowed in” as proper public discourse. And that is the language of science.
Furthermore, given our reduction of life to economics, what the elevation of science really means is the ascendency of “applied science” (technology) to pride of place. Every aspect of our social life thus comes under the purview of governmental control, and all culture and every form of reason becomes a function of politics. And this final step, the submission of culture to politics, is the very heart of totalitarianism. Only, in this case, it is not the totalitarianism of the Nazis or the Stalinists or the Maoists – brutal, bloody, and quite vulgar in its unsubtle use of blunt violence – but rather the much more seductive totalitarianism of techno-nihilism, where our base bodily desires form what I call a “Collective of Concupiscence” which the government regulates, and the economy inflames.
Our future is thus most likely to be a dystopian one. But it won’t be the dystopia of the concentration camp. Rather, it will be Huxley’s Brave New World with a Disneyland aesthetic. Because… you know… “family values”.
You might think this is an exaggeration. I don’t think it is. It is the logical conclusion of scientism no matter what our elites might say about our bold new future. Because, despite what scientism’s popularizers (such as Carl Sagan and Richard Dawkins) might say in their more poetic moments when speaking about the “beauty” of the cosmos and of science, the fact is, if I am just an ape with a big brain, and an accidental byproduct of the cosmic chemistry of stardust remnants, then I really don’t give a shit about some gaseous blob, or even a vast number of “billions and billions” of gaseous blobs, ten million light years away; or the “fascinating” mating rituals of fruit bats; or the “poetry” of soil regeneration through dung beetle digestive cycles. In other words, when you are told endlessly that there is no meaning to existence, then guess what? You actually start to think that way. And then everything loses its flavor. Everything starts to taste like rice cakes.
Therefore, you cannot have it both ways. You cannot bleach divinity and Transcendence out of the cosmos and tell everyone that the whole affair is just an aimless and pointless accident, and then turn around and talk to us about the “moral necessity” of this or that urgent social cause. Why should I even care about the future of humanity itself? Why should I care about the ultimate destiny of ambulatory, bipedal, chemistry sets?
So really, it doesn’t matter who is in power … Democrats or Republicans, Trump or Oprah, and it does not matter if we place more emphasis on the government to solve our problems or free enterprise economics. Because our entire society operates according to the false premise I articulated above. In that sense we are all Marxists now, insofar as Marx’s controlling idea was the notion that the material world is all that exists and that economics drives everything.
And try as we might to deny that this materialistic view of existence is death to the higher functions of our soul, there is no escaping the fact that fewer and fewer people will devote themselves to higher pursuits, once the notions of God, Transcendence, purpose, meaning, the Good, and so on, are banished from our lexicon of acceptable ideas. We will increasingly privilege pleasure over happiness, which is to say, we will privilege opioids, techno gadgets, virtual reality stimulation, porn, and various other forms of addiction. We will be, if we aren’t already, a nation of addicts. Because if there is one thing we know about our bodily appetites it is that they are insatiable, requiring ever more of the same things to slake our rapacious desires. But partaking of the same thing, addictively, over and over and over, is boring. It crushes and kills the soul. And so what we will really end up with is not a society of liberated selves, but a society of bored, libidinous, pleasure addicts trending toward suicidal despair.
Furthermore, the fact of the matter is that we all share the same basic bodily appetites. It does not matter if you are rich or poor, gay or straight, fat or skinny, old or young, or what race you are, or your ethnicity, or your political party, or if you prefer the vapid and brain-dead banter of “Fox and Friends” over the vicious and pompous self-importance of the moronic ladies on “The View”. Once you take away the idea that human nature has a spiritual side that, you know, “trends upward”, you are left with staring at your crotch or your gut or your veins. This is, of course, absolutely true, but we ignore the downward spiral of our culture into technopagan bacchanalia because our affluent elites, the poor dears, have confused despairing addiction and the “dark” view of life it spawns, with sophistication, and count as “enlightenment” a cultivated anti-intellectual stupidity.
I am struck, for example, by how many of the lead characters in shows made by Netflix or Amazon (especially detective shows) are depressive and “dark” souls, haunted by some hidden pain in their past that is the irritant in the oyster that creates the pearl of their genius. So far so good, since we all have hidden pain in our lives, and the various things we all suffer from really are, quite often, the genesis of much depth and creativity.
But these characters are different. They are nihilistic, often cruel, morally ambiguous, irreligious of course (duh), self-destructive, and live as radically atomized, alienated and isolated individuals devoid of love or meaningful relationships. And if they do develop a relationship, it usually flounders on the shoals of the lead character’s unfathomably dark pain. Or worse, the love interest is killed off, with a hefty dose of complicit guilt on the part of the lead character, further adding to his or her morose self-immolation. And all of this is portrayed as “sophisticated”. (There are exceptions of course, but this is just an anecdotal and subjective impression I have of many of these shows).
The irritating thing about all of this, of course, is that it is just so puerile and shallow, with little justification for its pretentious dismissal of “God” or “the Good”. And it is unbearably boring and drab. Is there anything more pitifully awful than being forced to listen to someone drone on and on about their “sexuality”?
By contrast, people only really become interesting when they differentiate themselves from one another, as true individuals, by cultivating the higher levels of the soul. And this is done in many ways, even still today, because the fact is we ARE spiritual beings and the spiritual dimension of our existence cannot be snuffed out. But those among us who still seek these things are becoming ever rarer and are being forced into ghettos or isolated enclaves of activity, and frequently branded as bigots because we adhere to traditional religious views about God and such things. It does appear, in other words, that the Collective of Concupiscence has fangs and claws, because at the end of the day, we are all “God haunted”, which is why members of the Collective view traditional religious believers as their tormentors
However, sadly, gradually the creative power of the majority of people is being perverted and bent to serve the needs of the emerging political and economic collective – the Collective of Concupiscence — wherein the true “liberation” of your “identity” can only come about when all of those institutions that represent the values of the Spirit are branded as oppressors. We WILL be liberated, and we WILL use government to enforce that liberation, and we WILL demand that the economy provide us with the means to enjoy the fruits of that liberation. Indeed, we will demand that the economy provide us with all of the gadgets and accouterments that we need to enhance our pleasures to unimaginable heights. Welcome to the wacky, upside down world of the new “sophistication”: mass produced individualism where radical “nonconformity” means all public and, increasingly, private speech, will be policed, looking for any sign that someone has breached the canons of nonconforming orthodoxy. So “individualism” here appears to mean its exact opposite.
But that is what you get in the Collective of Concupiscence. Somewhere Orwell is smiling.
Peter Maurin lived before all of this technological wizardry was real. But he lived in an age of totalitarianisms. And he was a thinking Catholic. Which means he had a deep prophetic insight into what was around the corner, so to speak. And just as Rod Dreher, in his wonderful book, The Benedict Option, calls orthodox Christians to a deeper awareness of the profoundly anti Christian challenges our culture is putting before us, so too did Peter Maurin warn us that the only way we will endure the coming storm of cultural barbarity is to form deeply intentional communities of Christian intellectual discourse, moral ecology, and liturgical practice. Not so that we can “escape” the world and shun our brothers and sisters who remain within it. But so that we can know ourselves better and come closer to God so as to be better able to serve our neighbor in love.
The members of the Collective of Concupiscence are not our “enemies”. Indeed, we are, if we are honest, infected with the same bacillus as everyone else. We are all in the Collective in one way or another. And so there is no question of abandoning the culture because that is, quite simply, neither desirable nor possible.
But we cannot drink from the same poisonous well and so we must cultivate new sources of “living water” in order to share it with everyone. And “everyone” means, literally, “everyone”. So please do not accuse me of “us vs. them” thinking. That kind of approach is not an option for a Christian. But if you do not “have” a Christian sensibility of the big questions of life, then by default you will “have” the template provided by our culture. I will end therefore with an old Latin phrase: “Nemo dat quod non habet”: You cannot give what you do not have.
Larry Chapp writes from the Dorothy Day Catholic Worker Farm in rural Pennyslvania that he runs with his wife, Carmina. You can visit the farm; follow the link for more information.
Larry’s essay made me reflect on why the only thing in politics that seriously engages my interest these days is the appointment of federal judges. I believe that the dystopia Larry Chapp envisions in this essay — this present dystopia, and the dystopia to come — is unstoppable in the short run. The question is only whether or not we will have a right-wing or a left-wing version of it. I care so much about federal judges because I see them as the only institution that can protect the rights of dissenters to be left alone in this new America.
Don’t get me wrong. Leaving aside the courts, it’s not a matter of total indifference whether or not there’s an R or a D sitting in the White House. Despite all his sins and failings, President Trump is not going to sic the Justice Department on Christian schools that fail to Celebrate Diversity — Or Else™. A Democratic president almost certainly would — and almost certainly will. As America secularizes, though — a process that includes professing Christians changing their minds on moral issues that conflict with liberalism — people will cease to understand why the trad holdouts believe what they believe, and do what they do. It is possible that there will be enough libertarian sentiment left in the country to leave us alone — but I very much doubt that. The only exterior protection we can rely on will be a federal judiciary, especially the Supreme Court — that holds strong First Amendment convictions about protecting religious minorities.
Some Benedict Option critics think they’re making a meaningful argument against it when they say some version of, “Ah ha, what do you think is going to happen to your little communities when the State decides they are a public danger, huh?” It’s a reasonable point, but a weak one. It is precisely when the State decides that traditional Christians are a danger to it that the Benedict Option is going to be most needed. But it is still needed up until that time — which may never come — because our faith is not being taken away from us by the State; it is being dissolved by the ambient culture. For example, Washington is not compelling Christian parents to let their children be absorbed by social media and catechized by the Internet.
I see getting good federal judges in place to be an entirely defensive political act, designed to gain more time for religious minorities to develop resilient practices and institutions capable of enduring what’s to come, and keeping the faith alive.
I also see nothing at all wrong with traditional Christians engaging in politics for other reasons. My only caution — and it’s a strong caution — is that they not fool themselves into thinking that by doing so, they are meaningfully addressing the most severe crisis upon us. Let me put it like this: in the Book of Daniel, the Hebrew captives Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego served the King in high positions of state. You could say that they worked in politics, though they were outsiders. But when it came down to it, those men chose the prospect of martyrdom to the apostasy the King demanded of them. What practices did the three Hebrew men live by in their everyday lives as Jews in Babylon that gave them the presence of mind, and the strength, to choose God over Nebuchadnezzar? That’s the question that ought to be first on the minds of every traditional Christian thinking of going into public service. It’s the same with Sir Thomas More, who went to his martyrdom proclaiming that he was the King’s good servant — but God’s first.
One of the most important lines in Larry Chapp’s essay is his point that we traditional Christians “are infected with the same bacillus as everyone else.” It brought to mind the insufficiency of institutions and habits to protect us fully from the malaise of the broader culture. To be clear: these things are necessary, but not sufficient.
An example: at the Notre Dame conference, I spoke with an academic from a conservative Christian college. He told me that the student body there is quite conservative and observant. They are overwhelmingly pro-life. But they also do not understand at all what’s wrong with gay marriage. There are strong arguments from Scripture and from the authoritative Christian tradition, but these make no sense to them. Mind you, most of these young people were raised in optimal environments for the passing down of the faith and its teachings, and yet, on the key matter of the meaning of sex, marriage, and family, they … don’t get it.
I asked my interlocutor why. He shrugged, and said, “The culture is just too powerful.”
The problem with this is that in order to arrive at the point where one, as a Christian, rejects the Church’s teaching on the interrelated meaning of sex, marriage, and family, one has to reject both the authority of Scripture (and, for Catholics, the Church), and the anthropological core of Christianity — that is, the Biblical model of what man is. Ultimately, you have to reject traditional Christian metaphysics. I cover this all in my Sex and Sexuality chapter of The Benedict Option, but the heart of it is in this 2013 essay, “Sex After Christianity.” The gist of it is that the gay marriage revolution is really a cosmological revolution, and that to affirm gay marriage, as a Christian, means surrendering far more than many Christians think. It means, ultimately, that you see the world through the post-Christian culture’s template, not Christianity’s. What is likely happening with these young people is that they’re pro-life because they see the unborn child as a bearer of rights, including the right to life. And they’re not wrong! But that’s essentially a liberal position, one that is entirely amenable to gay marriage and the rest. The “bacillus” of materialism and radical individualism may find more resistance within the Body of Christ, but it still compromises its health.
Here’s another reason to be concerned, and to resist hoping in politics. It’s from an interview with Sir Roger Scruton:
How do current right-wing populist politics fit (or not) into your conception of conservative thought and conservative politics?
Well, I’m not a populist. I’m a believer in institutions. I think that institutions are the only guarantee we have of continuity and freedom. If you make direct appeals to the people all the time, the result is totally unstable and unpredictable, like the French Revolution. The revolutionaries made direct appeal to the people, and then discovered that they hated the people. So, they cut off their heads.
I believe [British historian] Simon Schama wrote a book on the topic…
Yes, Simon Schama’s book on the French Revolution is very revealing about this. The attempts to get rid of all mediating institutions just leaves the people in a dangerous condition, and a demagogue in charge. You can see this in Robespierre and Saint Just. And the only good thing about the French Revolution is that the demagogue gets his head chopped off as well.
So, I believe in institutions, and in using institutions to direct the people towards the kind of continuity and stability that they actually need, but doing it with their consent, obviously. That’s where the democratic process comes in.
What are your thoughts on the balance between consent and stability?
Well, first of all, stability requires legitimacy of opposition. There has to be a discussion of all the issues. That means that there must be a voice for the opponent, that’s what Congress and Parliament are about. And the first victim of real populism is the opponent, who is shut up. The press is taken away from him, parliamentary positions are taken away from him, so that the leading power has no voice opposed to it. …
It is no secret now that Americans have lost faith in institutions across the board. As Bill Bishop puts it, this is not Trump’s fault; the way we live in modernity all but guarantees it. Trump is not the cause of this, but rather an effect — though of course he also serves as a cause. The fact that a man can be elected President of the United States despite having violated so many institutional norms tells us something about the presidency, and the American people today. We are losing, and in many cases have already lost, mediating institutions. America is quite vulnerable to a demagogue — and there’s no guarantee that the demagogue will always be from the political right. Huey P. Long, for example, was a very effective left-wing demagogue — and he emerged almost a century ago, when the power of American institutions was much, much stronger than it is today.
We see in Trump a desire to delegitimize the opposition. For example, the media isn’t simply biased — a standard conservative politician’s critique, because it’s usually true — but is illegitimate. That’s what “fake news” means. The thing is, on college campuses, the urge to delegitimize opposition as racist, sexist, homophobic, and so forth, is exactly the same thing. Ultimately it will become more powerful, because this mentality is conquering the hearts and minds of the kind of people who will be running the institutions that, however attenuated their influence, will be shaping the perceptions and beliefs of Americans.
The power of Google and Facebook to determine which opinions are legitimate and which ones are not is going to be massively important. And I would be shocked if some form of the Chinese “social credit” system were not introduced into this country. What does that mean? From the National Interest:
The Chinese government has unveiled a new program that it dubbed the “social credit system.” The system won’t be fully operational until 2020, but already it has generated as many as 7 million punishments.
The system would rate the “trustworthiness” of Chinese citizens according to a wide variety of factors, such as what they buy, how they spend their time, and who their friends are, just to name a few.
The government would then take those deemed untrustworthy and punish them by not letting their children attend prestigious private schools, not allowing them to travel, and shutting down their internet presence.
The Chinese Communist government promises that the social credit system will “allow the trustworthy to roam freely under heaven while making it hard for the discredited to take a single step.”
However, one must ask what it means to be “untrustworthy.”
In the case of journalist Liu Hu, it could mean trying to expose government corruption. Other offenses could be things such as jaywalking, smoking on a train, criticizing the government, or having friends or family that speak ill of the government, all things that can lower one’s score.
In a future America in which opposition is deemed illegitimate, and in which personal data is widely available, how long do you think we can hold out against the temptation to institute a social credit score system? In China, it is being imposed from the top. In the US, our population is being acculturated by online norms, as well by an ethos that regards opponents not simply as wrong, but evil. We are being conditioned to accept this, and even, within the next couple of generations, to demand it.
It might come from the right, in which case I believe conservatives would bear a special responsibility for fighting it. But looking at the demographic data about the political and cultural beliefs of younger Americans, I think it is far, far more likely that it will come from the left — and that it will primarily be directed towards thought criminals like traditional Christians and social conservatives.
In that case, the best chance we have to protect ourselves from that all-encompassing tyranny would be a Supreme Court that defends the First Amendment. The greater concern for us, however, is that there would be no need for traditional Christians to be protected from a tyrannical social-credit-score government, because all Christians will have conformed internally, like so many “good German Christians” of the 1930s, to the regime — in our case, a regime of Moralistic Therapeutic Totalitarianism.
…so too did Peter Maurin warn us that the only way we will endure the coming storm of cultural barbarity is to form deeply intentional communities of Christian intellectual discourse, moral ecology, and liturgical practice. Not so that we can “escape” the world and shun our brothers and sisters who remain within it. But so that we can know ourselves better and come closer to God so as to be better able to serve our neighbor in love.
We have to build this now — while there is still time.
UPDATE: Former San Francisco mayor Gavin Newsom was elected Governor of California last night. Note this:
Remember him authorizing SF to grant same-sex marriage licenses against California state law way back in 2004? The man is the leading edge of social-cultural liberalism.
— Damon Linker (@DamonLinker) November 7, 2018
The old liberals — Jerry Brown, say — who respected institutions are dying out. Newsom is the next generation. Damon Linker is right to point to Newsom’s willingness to openly defy the law to achieve a liberal goal as a harbinger of what’s to come from the left. He was eager to cut down the law to get to the devil of homophobia. This kind of thing is coming.