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The Dark Benedict Option

Left-wing German economist Wolfgang Streeck warns: Get ready for the new Dark Age
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From Adam Tooze’s take in the London Review of Books on a new book, How Will Capitalism End?, 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.


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.  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, 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. 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 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. 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. 



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