“Modern humans made the night sky opaque; made the stars disappear; cut ourselves off from the cosmos; severed ourselves and our children from celestial miracles; banished mystery and knowledge; exiled ourselves from infinity.” – Drew Dellinger
It’s been a real pleasure to watch the it’Sunny blog develop and grow, and I’m excited to find myself lucky enough to write a piece for the site myself. I’ve become a quick fan of the blog, and perhaps that is why it was with some dismay that I read Mr Darryl Wardle’s piece entitled The Limits and Possibilities of Morality for Finite Humans Living in a Finite World (which you can read for yourself here: https://tinyurl.com/finiteworld). The piece has its merits, but those are overshadowed by its unfortunate attitude towards any and all things either traditional or religious. This is a face of the left that I had hoped was fading fast, but Wardle’s piece has shown that in some corners it still holds sway. So, this is a response. I hope to show that the philosophy underlying this attitude is dubious, but even more significantly that, as a feature of leftist realpolitik, it is strategically suicidal.
Note: Since this is not an academic article, I won’t be able to afford Mr Wardle’s writing the nuanced and charitable interpretation it may deserve – instead, I will approach it as emblematic, in parts, of a false dilemma that I argue should no longer hold a place in leftist theory or strategy.
The False Dilemma Of Finite VS Infinite
The basis of Wardle’s piece is the apparent dichotomy of the ‘finite’ vs the ‘infinite’. This is an old dichotomy, premised on certain enduring philosophical issues, and has surfaced in various permutations across the ages:
Either knowledge is absolute, or it is relative.
Either truth is perennial, or it is contingent.
Either meaning is fixed and discovered, or it is contextual and created.
Either reality is material and finite, or it is spiritual and infinite.
Now, the particular position that Wardle seeks to defend is that in our moral and political orientations we must always privilege the ‘finite’ (the worldly, the present, the immanent) over the ‘infinite’ (the otherworldly, the timeless, the transcendent). This is a false dilemma. More than that, it is disingenuous. Wardle professes agnosticism about the existence of “God(s) or Platonic Form(s)” on the one hand, but then declares that our “first responsibility can no longer be to the gods, to the metaphysical, to the past, and certainly not to tradition for its own sake”. This is the elitism that condescends to the religious, saying ‘sure, maybe your sky daddy actually exists, but that doesn’t really matter now does it’. This same attitude is then applied to tradition and the past: ‘that was then, this is now’. It should be obvious to those who have been involved in leftist politics for any significant amount of time why these kinds of attitudes are strategically unwise. But before returning to that issue, I want to investigate the underlying antagonism that drives this kind of rhetoric. To keep things simple, let’s designate those who hold the positions I am about to discuss as the ‘naively traditionalist’ on the one hand and the ‘naively historicist’ on the other.
Modern right-wing conservatives, who Wardle rightly takes to task, are a prime example of what I am calling naïve traditionalism. They seek to return to a time when things were ‘better’, a time that, for them, more accurately aligns with their ideals. However, their traditionalism doesn’t fail because, as Wardle puts it, “the conservative narrative of a “return” conceives of meaning as if meaning has somehow been lost to the past through its sacrifice on the altar of the present”. Rather, the conservative narrative fails because their traditionalism is dependent on a nostalgia that is not warranted. When a Trump supporter demands that America be made ‘great again’, the insinuation is that America was great at some time in the past, and can be made great again by emulating that time. This has less to do with a feeling that ‘the past’ has been sacrificed to ‘the present’ than it does with the feeling that certain values, that used to be prevalent, have been lost, and should be retrieved.
Moreover, this is by no means an impossible task. The right, in America and elsewhere, have been effective in rolling back various progressive reforms and re-instantiating conservative institutions. And so, when Wardle claims that:
“…conservative thinking is aptly expressed in the Confucian proverb: “study the past if you would define the future”. While there is a measure of merit and even wisdom resonating in these words, the emphasis should be placed on our directedness towards the future rather than the past.”
I cannot imagine what that is supposed to mean. All action is directed towards the future, including action that seeks to recreate in some way the past. And this future directedness is clear in various far right-wing goals; the establishment of an ethno-state, for example, or dog-whistling about birth-rates and ‘protecting the future for white children’.
The actual problem then is that the nostalgia and/or utopian thinking that these projects are premised upon is really simply a front for feelings of loss of superiority and privilege experienced by predominantly affluent or previously unfairly advantaged groups as their countries diversify, embrace progressive politics and so on. That is why their nostalgia is not warranted, and we are correct to press them to answer, for example, when exactly America was great? Was it when colonialists were slaughtering the indigenous population? Was it during the heyday of slavery, when humans were bought, owned and sold as objects? Was it during Jim Crow racial segregation? Was it during the disastrous war on drugs, or the wars on terror, or the excesses and catastrophic crashes of Reaganite neoliberal capitalism, all of which disproportionately affected minorities? The moderate American conservative cannot answer in good faith without blushing, and so more and more, we see the rise of an extreme right-wing that unashamedly admits the white supremacist bedrock that lurks below the veneers of mere nostalgia and naïve traditionalism.
Another salient example of naïve traditionalism can be found in the Romantic thinkers of the 18th century. Here we find an almost pure nostalgia, a reaction against the Enlightenment ascendancy of reason over emotion and the excesses of the industrial revolution. The Romantics professed a desire for a return to nature, or more generally the return to a lost and glorious past. In this case, we might say that unlike the effective and dangerous traditionalist push-backs of modern conservatism, the genies of the industrial revolution and the so-called ‘age of reason’ cannot so easily be put back into the bottle. On the other hand, considering the ravages of industrial capitalism, we might look back at these thinkers and wish that they had been taken more seriously… In any case, what both modern conservatives and the Romantics have in common is not that their projects are premised on some “anachronistic atavism of thought” (in Wardle’s phrasing), but rather that their seeking to return turns a blind eye to that which is indeed valuable and worthwhile in that which they seek to ‘undo’: progressive politics and economics on the one hand and liberating Enlightenment ideals and technological breakthroughs on the other. This is why their traditionalism is naïve; it is a totalizing narrative, bereft of nuance. It’s opposite then, what I call ‘naïve historicism’, shares at least those characteristics, but in an interesting way that the thinkers who are under its spell regularly fail to notice.
Naïve historicism is based on the assumption, and it is extremely important to stress that this is merely an assumption, that the wisdom, knowledge and culture of any given time is entirely overdetermined by the vicissitudes of its historical context. In other words, wisdom from the past is more or less useless to us today, because it was absolutely and merely ‘a product of its time’. This radically relativizes all human endeavour and thought, and we might rightly ask why the doctrine of historicism itself isn’t vulnerable to this overdetermination of meaning, since it was also ‘a product of a particular time and place’?
Missing this obvious question is exactly the trap that naïve historicists tend to fall into. All too often, a historicist thinker (Hegel in particular comes to mind) will exempt themselves from their own historicism, and like Francis Fukuyama, gleefully announce the end of history – all that has come before has now found its ultimate and final expression and culmination in whatever now happens to be the prevalent ideology, or the thinker in question’s pet theory of everything. The arbitrary reification of the present as the ultimate locus of meaning is an enduring facet of this kind of naïve historicism.
Consider, as a prime example, Wardle’s contention that “meaning is only manifest(ed) on the temporal horizon of contemporary concerns”. How so? This seems a bizarre abstraction that ignores (or perhaps seeks to efface) the very real effect that past meanings have on the present. It is precisely because meaning is not fixed in time and arbitrarily tied to whatever happens to be the prevailing contemporary zeitgeist that conservatives or Romantics can indeed find meaning in the past and hope to apply that meaning to the present. Or for that matter, why Marxists can do the same. Or Christians. Or atheists. Or anyone.
Moreover, the naïve historicist, in crowning themselves the discoverer of CONTEXT and as such exempt from its influence and capable of now judging the wisdom of all peoples and all times, inevitably, and usually purely driven by their own biases, relegate to the dustbin of history much that is valuable and worth saving. In the proud tradition of the Enlightenment, this can often become a violent and totalizing exercise, banishing traditional and indigenous knowledge to the realm of the superstitious, hand-waving away the enduring global appeal of religion, and scoffing at spiritual and ritual traditions as little more than unenlightened barbarism or ‘woo’. The issues here are manifold: epistemicide, Eurocentrism, the pernicious and deliberate moral relativism of online ‘edge-lords’, scientism, nihilism, etc. In an ironic twist, those most ardent supporters of Nietzsche’s re-evaluation of values may find themselves simply defaulting to the values of their own time at best, or nihilism at worst, in a naïve quest to simply purge ‘all that came before’. One of the greatest dangers here is that when the left discards these things (tradition, religion, culture), the far right stoops to pick them up, and wields them as untouchable ideological weapons with broad rhetorical appeal.
This is closely related to another aspect of naïve historicism; how it responds to traditionalists. It strawman’s their concerns as parochial and ignorant, explaining to them condescendingly ‘can’t you see, we can’t return to the past, we can only remember it’. Beyond the inaccuracy of this attitude, it may also prove to be strategically disastrous by alienating working conservatives who may have been shifted to the left by a more sober unification along class lines.
The modern obsession with viewing ourselves as freed from the ‘superstitions’ of the past has left us not beyond values, as some kind of enlightened Nietzschean Übermensch, but more often simply bereft of them, prey to whatever happens to be fashionable, or worse, marketable. It is into this void that right-wing grifters insert themselves and preach a naïve traditionalism to young minds starved for a sense of meaning and belonging. If the left is not okay with leaving swathes of rudderless youth vulnerable to the clutches of right-wing traditionalist radicalization, then we must learn to embrace a more tenable view than the kind of naïve historicism that demystifies and over-contextualizes the world to the point of sterilization.
Reconciling The Finite and the Infinite
Fortunately, there exist alternatives that are neither naively traditionalist nor naively historicist, but rather take the bull by both horns, as it were, instead of being impaled on either side of the false dilemma. On these views, we are aware of context, and this includes our own, and so we admit our limits, and don’t seek to arbitrarily universalize our own contingent worldviews. We understand that meaning is created contextually, but we don’t go so far as to then claim that the past has no wisdom or lessons to offer. We affirm that meaning can be poetically created, and that, as the meme goes, modern problems require modern solutions.
On the other hand, we don’t dismiss the infinite, and we don’t preclude the possibility of perennial wisdom appearing in various cultures and at various times simply because these phenomena happened ‘in history’. We don’t stubbornly deny the possibility that there is real meaning to be found ‘out there’, in the cosmos or the divine or the traditions of the past, by clinging to a defunct anthropocentric existentialism.
That being said, we will not be so naïve as to accept any of the mores and ideologies of religion and tradition as beyond reproach or questioning – but in doing so, we must be careful in our critique, and not default to a sweeping and violent Eurocentrism or militant academic atheism that belittles the religious convictions of real people as contemptible and irrelevant. And so on the one hand, we must remain vigilant concerning the hateful excesses of religious fundamentalism and extremism – there is no room on the left for tolerating the likes of the Westboro Baptist Church. On the other hand, we must also avoid painting any and all adherents of religion as brainwashed and dangerous buffoons – there is also no room on the left for the likes of Sam Harris’ generalized Islamophobia. In essence, the left needs to not make the liberal mistake of scapegoating its apparent ideological opponents as merely a ‘basket of deplorables’, and rather remain capable of delivering necessary critique without at the same time sowing damaging division where strategic alliances could have been forged instead.
On a pragmatic level, we should also be willing to admit that there is a reason why certain traditions of wisdom have proven incredibly durable: they work. They can provide meaning beyond the mundane scope of the everyday – and as such much needed spiritual inspiration and succour, as well as effective avenues of self-improvement and social cohesion. Moreover, abandoning these things doesn’t make them disappear. It simply leaves them available for appropriation by the right and, of course, by capital.
Capitalism And Infinitude
The examples of capital co-opting spiritual and religious language and practices for the benefits of the bottom line abound; mindfulness training, workplace ‘spiritual’ counsellors, etc. Often these function to conceal the crimes and crises of capitalism; you are shown how to relieve stress, in the hope that you won’t ask why it is that you are constantly and unnaturally stressed. This is the mode of ‘religion’ that Karl Marx rightly describes as the opiate of the masses – religion not in the genuine sense, but religion co-opted by capital to protect itself.
The Black Mirror episode Fifteen Million Merits comes to mind here, as it does a good job of portraying the uncanny ability of capitalism to absorb things that threaten it into its own machinery. Can the infinite, genuine religion and spirituality, really pose a threat to capitalism? Absolutely. But I will return to that in a moment.
First, and considering all of the above, let us ask how we are to make sense of Wardle’s claim that:
“…contemporary neo-liberal capitalism suffers from its own surplus of non-finite thinking in that its operations contribute to the effacement of the finitude of our planet.”
Of course, this claim rests on an incredible equivocation on the author’s part – a feat of fallacious sleight-of-hand. Hitherto, Wardle has equated non-finite thinking with the otherworldly, the spiritual, the longing to return to the past. Then suddenly, it is related to capitalism, which operates on a decidedly finite, materialist, mechanistic worldview. Capitalism’s paradox, the crisis of infinite value being extracted from finite resources (or we might say, the infinite exploitation of a finite working class), has nothing to do with infinitude in the sense of religion and the likes. To conflate these two very different meanings of infinitude is to get the situation exactly wrong.
It is precisely the rhetorical ‘finitude’ of the planet, its objectification, its commodification, alongside the same applied to human souls, which capitalism depends on. The earth and its inhabitants can be exploited never-endingly exactly because they are not imbued by a spirit; in capitalism they all exist as mere resources. And so this exploitation is not even a sin. In fact, it barely registers as a crime. Capitalism thrives in the absence of a sense of the infinite; that sense of spirit and interconnectedness for centuries championed by the better aspects of the religions and wisdom traditions of the world. It requires these things to be demystified, absorbed into itself. At the very least, it requires the proletariat to be agnostic towards the possibility of their own liberation, whether material or spiritual, since any genuine liberation would threaten the monopoly that capitalism has on their time, their labour – their lives. Capitalism relies on and therefore perpetuates the light pollution that obscures the stars – it requires for its survival the loss of wonder that results from and is maintained by a world reduced to mere material consumption. The world of capitalism is brazenly finite, and is rendered duller, shallower and more vulnerable for it.
And so those who are embedded in the discourses of infinitude, in modes of authentic religious and spiritual existence, far from being antithetical to the leftist project, should in fact be some of our closest allies. It is here where we should consider seriously the value of movements, ideas and thinkers such as the luminaries of liberation theology (a synthesis of Christian theology with a commitment to the economic and political liberation of the oppressed), the guiding religious convictions of leaders such as Dr Martin Luther King Jr and Dr Manas Buthelezi, the spirited pragmatism of Cornel West, and yes, a more nuanced understanding of Marx’s own conceptions of the role of religion and spirituality. Though a full treatment of these ideas falls far outside the scope of this blog post, I point to them here as important alternatives, as viable approaches and concepts the left can and should embrace. Fortunately, there are already many within leftist movements who are proponents of these approaches: advocates of the practical value of replacing arrogance with acceptance, and elitism with effective and broad alliances.
And so, to the religious, and those who find meaning in the past, the left should rather say “yes, some of your ideals are worthwhile, and can align with ours – your meaning is worth preserving”. Because the alternative, saying “no, all your ideals are silly and superstitious, we should get rid of them” is strategic suicide. To the people these words are directed at, who genuinely and sincerely take religious or other meanings from the vocabulary of ‘the infinite’ as a significant part of their self-identification, these words mean only one thing:
“We should get rid of you.”
The left, as a movement premised on equality and inclusion, can do better. And if we want to win, if we want our politics to move out of the realm of the ideal and further into the realm of the real, we must do better.
Contributor: Wehan Murray Coombs
Wehan Murray Coombs is a researcher at the University of Pretoria, currently completing his PhD dissertation on Platonism and esotericism. In his spare time, Wehan enjoys learning about political philosophy, as well as pursuing a philosophical and spiritual lifestyle informed by various traditions both past and present.