Jokers to the Left of Me, Clowns to the Right: Bernie and Business Rhetoric

BigBusiness

There is one thing in particular that concerns me about the Bern Revolution: the carelessness of thought exhibited by many of its followers.  More exactly, the disregard for understanding the many facets of business that are currently being demonized, particularly with the rhetoric used by Bernie’s campaign.

All of a sudden, folks that have claimed to think with nuance (college students and self proclaimed enlightened folk) have lost all nuances and are drowning in Bernie’s talking points.  They are rehearsing the talking points of intelligent people, but the intelligent people that articulated these ideas never did so at the expense of nuance.  The masses have embraced catch phrases.

Just look at the news or language of protesters…even Facebook posts.  It is mimesis ad nauseum.

Some of the more popular phrases are:

“we are the 1%”

“profits over people”

“wall street and big business”

“Fighting for the middle class”

“common good”

“working wage”

I could go on.

Do the people using these phrases know what they mean or are these just talking points?  Easily rehearsed bible verses if you will?

In case you want to immediately object, or quit reading at this point, I must be like the Apostle Paul and remind you that I have a few liberal credentials, progressive credentials even.  This post is not written by some conservative lackey looking to uphold the status quo though I want to be honest about my own career which is in business and in vocational Christian ministry.  I hope such does not disqualify me from speaking.

By all accounts I am a moderate…in other words a “sell out” to many of you who might read this post.  I will not die on Adam Smith’s sword nor will I hoist Marx into the pantheon of economic Gods.  They are referent points, which at first blush, may seem to be in stark contrast, but in reality are only different teleologically.

In 2012 I attended LEFT Forum, the single largest gathering of Leftists on the planet for their annual conference in NYC.  I was surrounded by real life Leninists, Trotskyists and those who think Rosa Luxemburg is a saint.  These are folks who think Obama is a conservative.  What’s more?  I sat on a panel, presented a paper on a critique of capitalism, and that said paper was published in the Review and Expositor journal, Spring 2013 issue.  My paper’s title, “A Wesleyan Critique of the Leviathan of Capitalism.”  Yes, I used a historically evangelical figure to write a critique of capitalism, private property, liberal republicanism and I was even able to work in the doctrine of sanctification to boot.  What’s more?  For that same issue I wrote a book review on David Harvey’s excellent analysis of capital called The Enigma of Capital, which is a Marxist critique of the function of capital.  I am familiar with, have read, and sympathize with much of these critiques.  I find David Harvey refreshing and honest…though I am not sure he is any closer to the answers of our systemic problem than the next brilliant analyst.

On this very blog I have written on economics.  They aren’t exactly Ayn Rand’s type, though they don’t half-wittedly embrace Marx as the economic savior many claim him to be.  Just check me out HERE if you’d like to see some of my past analysis or search this blog under economics.  Or if you doubt my leftist theoretical credentials, THIS should clear that up (Lacan surfaces elsewhere on my blog as well)

My personal book shelves have more leftist economics and theory than I have books on Saint Paul and his letters, and I’m a minister!   On those shelves one will find Alain Badiou’s The Communist Hypothesis, William Cavanaugh’s Being Consumed, Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the 21st Century, David Graeber’s monumental book Debt, and for some twisted levity Slavoj Zizek’s Living in the End Times to name a few.

To be even more stereo-typical, I have 2 degrees from liberal arts universities (a BA and an MDiv and I’m working on a DMin) so of course I am a Lib.  I have even voted democratic in elections past.

(My own continued research interests intersect around economics, faith and constructive political theology…flavored with Continental Philosophy, particularly phenomenology.  Currently, I am exploring ethongraphy as a tool that can help engage disbelief structures/secularity with the faith.  Not exactly fundie brain food.)

While these credentials do not mean I am a card-carrying Leftist, they do mean I have given thought to a range of ideas outside of the normative ones with which I was raised (conservative, republican, evangelical, religiously fundamentalist, pro-capitalism…the typical WASP).  Being exposed to lots of thought and passionate people on different perspectives has taught me that nuance is important and that a simple reduction of one movement or idea to a villianized phrase is not very helpful.  Likewise, Sean Hannity can get on the radio and use the word “intellectual dishonesty” or “socialist” or “besmirched” and he thinks he’s defining something.  All he’s doing is galvanizing a base.  He is not educating or informing anyone.  He’s just drawing a line in the sand.

For the record, I think Hannity is an idiot.

Back to Bern.

Bern’s supporters are passionate, mobilized, and they want to see change in America.  I have intelligent friends who are supporters of Bernie.  Some of his support is from rigorously thoughtful people that know history and contemporary politics quiet well.   The problem is that the rigor of thought and careful attention does not “trickle down” from the intelligent people to the masses.  The masses key in on these catch phrases the way Sean Hannity does and they end up saying things they do not even understand…just like Sean Hannity (sorry if that stings).

For example, I have seen interview after interview where random reporters ask supporters of Bernie to define democratic socialism.  They have been asked to define the difference between fascism, socialism and communism.  They have been asked to define capitalism.  They have been asked to denote the differences between theoretical taxation under a socialist or capitalist system.

Do you know how many folks have been able to answer with a modicum of intelligence?   Shockingly few.  With stuttering…many have no idea.

(To be fair, I think many conservative people would be equally ignorant of their most “valued” principles if they had to write a few paragraphs as well)

Many of my friends have answers to these questions.  Further, many people I know can articulate actual policy and contrast it with the current policy of Obama or past Republican governments.  Many Bern supporters are thoughtful BUT many many more are clueless as to what they are supporting.  They are supporting sound bites just like dense Republicans who have fallen for Donald Trump’s “Make America Great Again” sound bite.

The problem with sound bite politics is that it generalizes too much.  It tends to lump entire groups of people into the same category, when in fact, it has reduced all plurality of nuance to a oneness of the same.  Not only does it generalize too broadly but it categorizes just as broadly.

For example, when Bernie uses the phrase “Big Business” or “profits over people” he is thinking about BIG Business, like huge hedge funds and banks that literally run the globe via interest rates and pushing policy agendas (and we all know how important these big banks must be if even Washington DC had to go all in and bail them out during the Great Recession).  Bernie is talking about establishments that pay their CEO 200 times what the average hourly worker makes.  He is talking about multimillion dollar corporations who’s havoc spans the spectrum of ecological and financial excess.

Bernie is not talking about a family that might own 4 hardware stores.  But the masses do not know the difference.  Do the masses not hear the words “big business” and lump all business into this category, castigating business owners as if they are the vampires of the economy?  I am sure some don’t but far too many do.

This current climate has given way to a demonization of business and capital endeavors.  (for my Leftist friends, lets not forget even Lenin harnassed capitalism to pull Russia out of depression via the New Economic Policy in the 20’s…and he took flak from his own party for doing so).

While we should all be angry at the large banks that placed the entire economy at risk a few years ago, and the politicians that continue to empower them, and the FED who’s fiscal policies are in the business of creating bubble after bubble and fair trade deals that have made the West drunk on cheap Chinese imports…the American public has directed their hatred and political angst on the one thing they all deal with daily: a business.

Ironically, business is both the problem, and the solution, since all the funding for any utopia would start with business or the “rich” people who own the businesses.

Bernie is not an idiot.  He knows the economy needs business.  If anything, it needs business to pay for his programs and utopia.  He would not be so stupid as to confuse big business with ALL business, but many of his followers don’t know the difference.

The average person sees a Wal-Mart, a CitiBank, an ACE Hardware, a McDonalds, a Starbucks, a local tire company, or a mom and pop outdoor outfitter that sells experiences on the Ocoee River as one and the same.  These are businesses floating in cash, with lots of top heavy administration who are pillaging the labor of others to get rich.  These businesses can, should and need to do more for the average citizen (if you need a list of what businesses already pay for and their tax rates hit me up and I’ll gladly bore you) and if they don’t do it out of their own volition then the government will pass laws to confiscate it (see, that’s my anarcho-libertarianism coming through).

At least these are the assumptions that negate the particularities of the climates and markets in which a business operates.

Allow  me to offer this illustration as a means of delineating small and large businesses and why placing every business under a generic business category is misleading.

Wal-mart has huge buying power because of their size.  They can singlehandedly negotiate a price with Coca-Cola for its products.  If Coke wants exposure to Wal-Mart customers, then Wal-Mart can pretty much set that table.  So go into Walmart and you can buy a 2 liter Pepsi for $1.25.  Not bad.  However, go into a pizza joint and try to purchase a 2 Liter.  You’ll find the cost could be as high as a dollar or $1.50 more.  Why?

Well, of course, the pizza joint guy wants to rip you off!

Wrong.

Coke doesn’t sell its products at the same price to the smaller buyer as the larger buyer because the smaller buyer doesn’t have as much leverage to drive down the cost of the good.  Leverage meaning customer exposure and sales.  So the small retailer pays MORE than Wal-Mart even though Wal-Mart can actually afford to pay more for the product!  Thus the small guy has to sell it for more to make money and STAY in business.  Even more, its highly likely Wal-Mart can sell for less and make more profit than the guy that sells it for more at a smaller business.

Some people think that you pay more at a pizza place for a soda because of the “convenience” factor, but that’s wrong too.  Why would a pizza place not want to sell you three 2 liters products for $1.25 if it could make a profit?  It  would be dumb to jack a price up just to jack a price up and it wouldn’t be an optimal way to make use of customer traffic if a business could make more money selling 3 cokes rather than 1.

Does the average voter even understand or pause to think about these pricing idiosyncrasies or is everything reduced to “business is bad and wants to rip me off?”

Does the average voter understand that when Bernie says “profits over people” he isn’t discussing the owner of this singular pizza shop…or the family that operates 1 restaurant…but instead he refers to the large corporations that stand behind these franchises or even the large banks that make this small business family dream possible?  Perhaps we should get a list of the good and bad businesses so we can at least arbitrate those morally suspicious too large businesses from the small ones and the small ones from the medium size ones…that way the citizens of America know who to hate and who to encourage.

We need a list of the corporate and independent businesses, the small, medium and large that exist within these facets and we need to pass a law that requires all businesses to post, like a health department score, their type of business so that consumers can know who they are giving their money too and who to hate on Facebook.

We all like David, but Goliath be damned.

Or how about the types and sizes of business?  Are these considered when lighting the passions of the masses with the catch phrases “profits over people” and “big business?”

When Bernie says “business” which one is he talking about and is he being clear to his audience?

Perhaps you didn’t know but there are differences between BIG business, franchised businesses and small independent businesses (not to mention monopolies, trusts or corporations in general).

Franchised businesses can be BIG business but they need not be.

An owner of 1 McDonalds can be an owner of only 1 or an owner of 20.  And there is a difference.  Similarly, a McDonalds may not have an independent owner, it may be owned by the corporation.  Likewise, an owner of a Smoothie King can be an owner of 1 or 20, but you better believe the operating income of a single Smooth King is not in the same ballpark as the operating income of a single McDonalds.  Yet when the government or folks who “feel the Bern” want to enact legislation that businesses pay for…or the National Board of Labor Relations makes rules on salary pay…they do not consider the differences of these vastly different business models , revenue differentiations, their particular markets, or capital flow.

Laws are passed with sweeping generalities.

Votes are won with sweeping generalites.

In addition, franchised businesses, so long as they operate within their franchise agreements, are typically free to set their own operating particulars.  They can set benefit and pay structure, holiday and sick leave ( I know my progressive friends would like this mandated but to do so would require government support either via staffing or subsidization since not all businesses have excess labor from which to draw while folks take months off of work), as well as the way they organize their administrative tasks.

Thus, one franchise can offer lots of cool perks and another, even the same franchise just a different owner, can offer much less.  A franchise is part of a large business, but it isn’t; it’s typically run by a group of people or person who pays a fee to the Brand in order to operate under the Brands business model.   It has a connection to a large business but may not see any financial contributions, by way of profits, from the Brand itself.

Large Businesses, however, often dictate their markets.  They call the shots.  They ARE awash in cash and because of all the cash they can drive the business agenda and MAKE markets move.  (note to readers, all BIG or large business was once a small independent business).  These businesses usually employ hundreds to thousands of employees.  They have lots of capital to spread around if they have made good business decisions (good is a relative definition here since some might call this good a “bad” if it has been exploitative).  These are the big banks and international corporations that you hear about in the media.  The Occupy Movement was about protesting this category of business.  The “average Joe” cannot join this business as an owner.  There is no way to buy into them except via the stock market or if you’re a famous person for whom Starbucks will make an exception.  These businesses offer lots of perks to employees and have such a large work force they can afford the PTO and benefits lots of people earn from them.

Then, there are small independent businesses.  These are “start up” businesses without attachment to a corporate structure.  These businesses begin with an idea and attempt to bring it to the market.  It can be something small like Apple that began in a garage and becomes something much larger or it can be a beauty boutique opened by someone who wants to be their own boss, market the uniqueness of their salon and is willing to take the investment risk that operating a business would incur.

Some small business cost more than others.

In my hometown, I have witnessed multiple restaurants open up with original menus and marketing plans.  These businesses had to find inventory suppliers, determine wages, determine proper inventory usage, configure their books to meet state and federal regulations, develop a marketing plan, etc., all on their own.  There was no corporate entity to help them.  And they had to invest in equipment in order to bring their product to a customer’s table.  Obviously, this costs more than a beauty boutique, but they are both small independent business.

These three types of business are all different.  Each one requires unique particularities to sustain their business model.  Each one has different cash flow, capital costs, employee costs.

The take away is this: NOT ALL business is big business.  NOT ALL business has the same cash.  NOT ALL business owners are millionaires.  Many business owners make enough to pay their bills and provide a better life for their family than they would otherwise…yet they are still well below Obama’s tax increase on couples making $250,000 or more.  Yes, its a real life version of Ripley’s Believe It or Not!

Business as a category of understanding is much more diverse than this political season has insinuated.  So when Bernie invokes “business” and crowds chant mantras of hate against “business” are all of these even being considered?

Businesses know their market and operating strategies better than government and better than any politician or keyboard warrior.  When foreign elements attempt to lump all business together or create a large paradigm by which every TYPE of business must operate it  creates fissures in the system that may have unintended consequences.

Unfortunately, these consequences cannot be seen until they start to take effect.

When all business is reduced to the same by politicians without any qualification it galvanizes a misplaced hatred toward business in general and creates unrealistic expectations on just how much and in what way businesses can pay for utopian dreams and visions.

Unless, of course, the dream is to have a full confiscation of business at the government level…this may not be too far from the truth.  Not being a conspiracy theorist here…just saying.

This would also be another fantastic way to have a large ruling elitist political class while shrinking the middle class.

These are just a few examples of the things that typify the wide-spread misunderstanding among the masses. These nuances and contextualities extend much further than the price of a Coke or whether a business is independent or corporate, small, medium or large.

They extend to inventory, labor and government regulation.  It extends to intricacies within small, medium and large businesses.  All businesses are different because they inhabit different markets, operate with different philosophies and are at different levels of success or failure.

When politicians fail to teach their adherents the nuances across business climate (or at least tacitly acknowledge these nuances in speeches) they are creating false generalities in order to prop up a false perception that can include every business everywhere.   Further, when politicians tap into the willful ignorance of the masses their crime of misrepresenting business in general, and their exploitation of ignorant voters, is no less egregious than the business that exploits its workers for profit. 

Both are committing sin and both will profit from it…but only one can get voted into office.

This is the production of class warfare at the expense of the truth and its only solution is to change our culture from one of distraction to one of interaction.

So please, do the world a favor.  Turn off FOX NEWS, quit reading Politico as your only news source, don’t drink Chomsky’s kool-aid unless you know why its flavored and don’t believe capitalist fairy tales of infinite production.   And please, when you talk about business or anything else…know what you are talking about.

An uneducated opinion is like an ass…and we all know what comes from those.

 

 

 

Not All Evangelicals Suck: John Wesley and his Radically Christian Economic Ideas

wesley money

The driving characteristics and hallmarks of capitalism today would have all found an uneasy home within the theological and moral world of John Wesley. He did not accommodate himself to the themes of the pervading culture, and despite his hierarchical political approach, he was revolutionary in his political and economic thought because it was predicated on a commitment to a specific image of God and a proper order for creation. Of the many things that might most concretely disrupt and deter from this image was an irresponsible relationship and understanding of one to wealth and capital.

Indeed, Wesley one finds almost the complete antithesis to most major themes that buttress the design of capitalism run rampant.
Themes that include, but are not limited to: a disregard for the other, the valuation of material, the desire for affluence, insatiable want, the inability to share, a disregard for community, the holy trinity of democracy, republicanism and economic theory, a lack of personal austerity, the limitless pursuit of desire, solidarity with the poor, a generous spirit with ones resources and a fixated concentration on market values and futures. At virtually every point Wesley is opposed from an economic, political, and most importantly, a theological perspective.
Wesley was not an economic theorist nor did he hate money. What concerned Wesley were the economic structures that would result from an inordinate desire to have money, to earn money, and to hoard money. In other words, what concerned Wesley was the unsanctified nature of the world. The theological resolution to keeping money in proper perspective was Wesley’s commitment to a theological concept he called sanctification or also Christian Perfection.
Simply defined, sanctification literally means setting a particular object or person apart for God’s use; humanity consecrates the said object and God sanctifies it, sets it apart, for Gods use. Sanctification is the reality of the life of the believer because it is the manifestation of the love of God in the believer wherein selfish desires are progressionally driven away. Perhaps more than any other theologian in church history, Wesley emphasized the process of sanctification as a necessary aspect of Christian existence. As Randy Maddox notes, “For Wesley this facet is an inseparable compliment to justification; namely, our present deliverance by God from the plague of sin, not just its penalty.”
Wesley an evangelical that not only cared about converting; he was intimately interested in how God shapes the world through sanctified people.
Sancification was part of saving grace that shaped how a believer related to the world, so when Maddox indicates that sanctification is about delivering from the “plague of sin” such may be interpreted as that grace that reshapes how one relates to the world and lives out their daily existence in practical ways. Sanctification is the means by which one is delivered from colluding in evil and selfish uses of money and our lives redirected toward living a life that is reflective of God as a donating, mutually sharing and all-together loving way of relating to the world and others. The reorientation from love of self to love of others is in no clearer way embodied than in our economic transactions and in one’s ability to speak truth to that which seeks to debase humanity through cycles of production and consumption. For Wesley, capital is not a goal; the goal is holy living. The result is surrendering one’s resources to God.
An additional aspect of sanctification was its communal orientation. Sanctification was something that occurs within the community of faith in order to minister to creation.
As H. Ray Dunning points out, virtually all sanctification texts in the New Testament are corporate in nature. All aspects of a Christian’s life fall under the auspices of sanctified reality. This means Wesley was concerned with a sanctified relationship to money due to his awareness of the unbridled nature of human desire. Sanctification in our current context need not mean Wesley was concerned with making money holy, but that he understood it to be an object that must be properly set apart for specific purposes and ends, thus squarely placing our relationship to capital and economics within his theology of the ordo salutis (Order of Salvation).
Wesley further notes that unsanctified Christian practice has the ability to implode as it could potentially become the hand-maiden of demonic political and economic forces that seek to challenge and re-narrate the world. Wesley is prophetic as to the current impotency of Christianity to occupy anything other than its own institutions and bigoted agendas precisely because it is unsanctified in its disposition:
“For wherever true Christianity spreads, it must cause diligence and frugality, which, in the natural course of things, must beget riches! And riches naturally beget pride, love of the world, and every temper that is destructive of Christianity. Now, if there be no way to prevent this, Christianity is inconsistent with itself, and of consequence, cannot stand, cannot continue long among any people; since wherever it generally prevails, it saps its own foundation.”
Wesley’s political and economic philosophy is bound to his anti-materialistic convictions founded on his reading of the Bible. When the world around him was appealing to natural rights, empiricism, nominalism and other popular intellectual fads, Wesley was insistent on founding his political and economic perspective on Jesus.

As Stephen Long notes,
“Wesley’s moral theology assumes Jesus as archetype (against Hume’s ectype). This necessitated an apriorism. What is something cannot be determined solely by its brute givenness; it is intelligible against the backdrop of the archetype. But this does not dissolve the world into essences and ideas that have no real existence. The pattern for reason is the hypostatic union where humanity and divinity are brought together such that a particular individual discloses to us the fullness of divinity.”

Wesley was convinced of a biblically shaped politic that placed others at the fore of one’s embodiment of Christ. Just as Jesus was not concerned with the acquisition or accumulation of goods, but was marked by a life of giving, so too did Wesley envision the Christian life as one lived in service to the other as a model of the supreme archetype that is Jesus the Christ. Yet money has the inverse effect of not disclosing ones servitude and obligation to the other as an obligation to God, but as that which enables others to serve us, feeding the monetary urge to desire more and give less. Wesley was suspect of the role of money in the lives of believers because of its power to negate Christian faith.

Wesley’s sermon on the “Causes of the Inefficacy of Christianity,” is an excellent example of how serious he takes avarice and the misappropriation of means when he declares that if one has gained all the money they can, and saved all they can, then they should in greater portion give all they can if they have any desire to escape damnation. Otherwise, Wesley fears that one can have no more hope of salvation than Judas Iscariot himself. Wesley is so utterly convinced of the corrupting nature of money that he offers little by way of hope for anyone who is rich. His notable sermon “The Danger of Riches” squarely places the onus of corruption on money in general and not simply as part of the immoral acquisition of money.
At this juncture, Wesley’s famous sermon on money has incredible import. Here, Wesley advocates a proper understanding of capital and how it is to be used. It is not a sermon on the demonization of money, but it is a sermon that clearly articulates a healthy relationship to the object of exchange known as money. In fact, in the sermon one gets the very strong impression that money and capital, when used rightly, is a good and virtuous object; yet money that is not dissipated properly can result in various evils and injustices. Along with sound personal economic advice, one finds a thoroughgoing Wesleyan critique of the very idea of money that keeps our system occupied through debt and exchange values. A look at Wesley’s take on money, and then debt, will show Wesley’s revolutionary political core.
Simply put, Wesley suggests one should make all they can, earn all they can and then give all they can. The first 2 propositions are self explanatory. Wesley believed in making an honest living and saving what is necessary for one’s future sustenance. The most important anti-capitalist sentiment found herein is his conviction that one should not harm the well being of another in ones quest for earning a living. Wesley would find it abhorrent for one to put another out of business or to attack another’s trade in any form of economic activity, especially activity that would result in the destitution of the competitor. But isn’t this exactly what the “free” market does? Does not a market built on competition and capital, driven by desire and greed, encourage activity that will generate individuals/corporations whose ultimate value is the value of money? Indeed, are not some of the most “successful” businesses in America those that see weaknesses in competition, study them and then implement strategies seeking to destroy the other company?

Hear Wesley’s injunction
“We are to gain all we can without hurting our neighbor. But this we may not, cannot do, if we love our neighbor as ourselves. We cannot, if we love every one as ourselves, hurt anyone in his substance [note Wesley’s personal italics here]. We cannot devour the increase of his lands and houses…by gaming, by over-grown bills, or by requiring or taking such interest as even the laws of our country forbid. We cannot, consistent with brotherly love, sell our goods below the market price; we cannot study to ruin our neighbors trade, in order to advance our own…None can gain by swallowing up his neighbors substance, without gaining the damnation of hell!”
In addition, his statement that currency should not be manipulated seems to embody a preference for a working wage wherein the consumer and the producer can operate at an equal level of exchange, neither one abusing the other. However, in our current climate, not only is currency manipulation adversely affecting its valuation, and thereby undervaluing property and working wages, the entire global edifice of economic exchange is based on currency valuations against other currencies, which often times results in the over-valuation of the goods of some countries to the extreme detriment of another.
Another crucial issue raised by Wesley is the issue of debt. Perhaps more than any other issue this lies at the heart of capitalism as multiple recent studies continue to contend from liberal and conservative economists alike.
Philip Goodchild notes, “There is no more significant social force within the contemporary global economy than debt…Debt is a means that becomes an end…to repay interest on a loan, someone else must have created the money elsewhere as debt, so that the original loan is repaid and the debt is canceled. The amount of debt money in the economy spirals ever higher. The force of debt grows ever stronger.”
For Wesley, debt keeps people from being able to give. Wesley’s emphasis on ministering to the poor is not out of pious ambition; it is out of his commitment to love of neighbor and love of God. The poor need to receive as a redemptive act, and in such reception, one is also part of the activity of God whereby one declares their independence from the compulsion to consume and the worship of mammon. Thus, accruing debt is in sharp contrast to the spirit of giving, particular in our culture today where non-existent money is not called debt; rather, it is known as a form of discretionary spending called credit. The accumulation of debt, especially discretionary debt, is a clear indication the ones affections toward money are already unsanctified.
Wesley’s historical context prevented him from developing a rigorous theory of money, but had he been able to do so he most likely would have been able to see that on a global scale money is unable to sustain the stability of trade because there is nothing beneath it to guarantee its value. Money is a symbol, whereby the means of exchange value, and exchange use, are confused in the symbol money with use value imposed by the physical presence of money, the idea of money itself. The great miracle of capitalism is that it discovered, along with the invention of credit, the nature of money as a value established without any intrinsic worth. Money becomes its own goal that actualizes hope in itself and is defined by invisible markers such as “markets” and “speculation” both ideas and concrete economic places that are in actuality nowhere precisely because they have no location and do not exist.
While Wesley did not have a sophisticated opinion on how an economy might function on a micro or macro-economic scale, he knew well the things that drive our current markets such as fear, desire and greed. His sermon, “The Danger of Riches” can almost act like a primer on economic exchange and consumer psychology.
In this sermon, Wesley offers an acute awareness of the role of desire in economic exchanges. He writes, “First, they that desire to be rich, to have more food and coverings; they that seriously and deliberately desire more than food to eat…” He notes that desire is the catalyst of inordinate consumption. He then couples the desire for more than one’s necessity with the idea of endeavor, or the commencement of causes to satiate the desire for more than one needs. One might today call the endeavor entrepreneurship or venture capitalism.
Endeavors are falsified because the place from which they arise is the unholy affection of “more.” It naturally follows for Wesley that the result will be an individual that is determined to possess material wealth, rather than immaterial recognition in the being of God. An economic exchange built on desire, mobilized by endeavors, results in more things than are necessary. This collection of things results in the apparition of personal property for individual purpose and ownership. The result, for Wesley, is not a decrease in desire or the arrival of the American dream or the “good life,” but a perpetuation of the “desire of having more.” A desire that is endless and who’s own longing is its own destruction.

Antiques and the Refuse of Capitalism

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

A serene sense of dread floods my mind when I peruse the garbage dumps of late capitalism: antique stores.

While many folks peruse the aisle and “booths” of a bygone era and admire the musty, dusty, smell, all I see is a bunch of old stuff that no one else wants…not even the owners of the stuff who rented the booths.  Erstwhile, the joke is on us “shoppers” looking for ways to elevate the National PCE % (Personal Consumption Expenditure) amidst the rubble and refuse of old stuff, stuff not even the owners want to own any longer.

People, consumers, we wade through the refuse of people long gone, passed on to folks trying to peddle their garbage off on others, and we think how “cool” or how “rare” it would be to own this piece of no longer useful material.  Perhaps we can purchase it, set it on the shelf, and admire that we are its new owners: new owners of garbage that will one day be someone else’s after we are gone.

This is the reality that has no given way to the myth, the latter no longer having a firm grip on my understanding of the former.

As a kid, I used to think that antique stores were places that contained deposits of value. Goods that were precious and items that were not to be touched by little fingers who could not consider their real price or worth.  After all, the sign on the glass cabinet did say “DO NOT TOUCH.”  Whatever was behind it must be obsolescently valuable.  Furniture, books, pictures, photos, knives, coins, broaches, etc., are now defined as purposeful and worth the value on their tag because they are old and old means it transcends our present and also its own past.  What used to be considered miniaturized monuments of bygone era are now the relics of my recent past: hello 1985.

Certainly not all “antiques” have just arrived at the antique label.  Some really are “antiques,” memorials to a unique human story that all humans will leave.

My own antique fetish is books.  I love old books, for their stories, their design, and their content that needs to be resurrected.  But even as I love and appreciate old bindings and paper innards, permeated with evanescent ideas only the most stubborn will discover, I acknowledge this is a fetish and the left-over of the productive processes of our economic engine.  For at the end of the day, when the world is replete with books, or things, or “nick nacks,” to what shall we turn them into that might be of value and redeem the castration of resources that had to occur for their very own production?  As we are all on our journey toward a global Easter Island I wonder what it is we will do with all the things our hands have made when our hands desire to no longer make things and we have read all the books that are can read.

Such existential angst hits me even as I enter a strip mall just looking for “useful” “antique” décor to reside in my home.  Perhaps I remain in denial that such thoughts will eventually only lead to nihilism or perhaps I have simply let nihilism take up permanent residence.

Walking through the antique store, moving vendor to vender, I came around the corner and discovered that those ugly plastic super hero thermoses that I used to use when I was 7 are now “antique” chemical composites of value.  I’m thinking “seriously…people think someone else wants to buy this?”

The old NASCAR collectibles I purchased back in 1992, over 20 years ago, are now appearing on shelves beside Martha Washington sewing cabinets…time being the great equalizer.  We know who we are by the company we keep and I suppose we know the value of our things by the things we store beside them.  Sorry Martha.

I even saw the Tin Care Bear lunch box my kindergarten sweetheart used to carry to school is now one shelf below 160 year old blue Mason Jars that could have been used to can food for Robert E. Lee’s army.

Something just felt off.

Herein lays the refuse of capitalism…of production that was productive for a period and made things with purpose, yet now there is no repurposing of these things.  All we can do is hope to sell them to someone who might place value upon them because society no longer values these things.  These were produced for them; we will produce things for us.  And what is not appropriated into the present is just refuse, garbage, resources that are now not so resourceful.

The World is our Garbage Dump because we have turned the world into our garbage.

Of course this is a coarse way to view the world and view productivity.  We do not want to think of ourselves as wasteful or manipulative of resources.  We do not want to think of our actions over the long arc of history, our communal human actions, as having a negative impact on the world.  We don’t want to think that humans before us have simply amassed mountains of plastic, iron and glass that is now buried in the ground or left to live immortally in “antique” stores or warehouses where their “value” can be preserved by transient humans.

If we call it antique, it makes us feel better.  Even what we produce today will one day be called antique; our consumptive needs justifying the productive ends of our irrational economic activity.

The leftovers become refuse and the refuse ends up being the old stuff we find in antique stores…the refuse explosion has only just begun I’m afraid.

Now, I am not a big Adam Smith fan.  Regardless of how we appraise his work, my estimation is that Smith was not a modern day venture/vulture capitalist.  He sincerely believed that markets, services, production, consumption, labor, etc., would occur as human sustenance demanded particular economic trajectories.  I do not think he foresaw the wastefulness of mass production for the teleological purpose of profit at all costs, even at the cost of human community.  The sheer scale of our global economy absolves Smith to a degree, even if logically his economics would lead to the unabated “invisible hand” that is now visibly manipulated by government and regulatory body’s.

Simply put: in our economy we make far more than we need and we think the world is the everlasting depository of that production.  We isolate markets for niche products, produce them to the furthest exponent and then sell them to all those looking to fill the emotional needs no longer being filled by a community of other humans.  We create desire by exacerbating the lack in others via our marketing.  We know the lack is there, world religions have know the lack is there for millennia, so now the secular capitalist mantra is to take advantage of that lack and fill it with fetishes of various stripes that will satiate the desire of our hearts while also leaving us feeling emptier than before.  This tension is felt by folks who “feel” like the lack they have will be satisfied in the act of consumption, so we produce and consume, produce and consume, produce and consume.  It’s why capitalism is so brilliant; It preys on our inherent need.

But the stoking of human emotion is not the only seed of this futile and wasteful production.

The other is our inherent desire to be creative and productive creatures.  We want to be able to survive but survive in meaningful ways.  Many times this meaning is derived from what we are able to generate or produce.  It provides us with a sense of worth and fulfillment, even if the consequences of our self-esteem could have national or globally negative consequences.  We isolate needs, find resources that can fill those (or we even create the need and then give people the resources we say they need for that need), produce them and feel accomplished from the valueless paper (money) we receive in exchange for them.  It’s a vicious cycle.

The problem with continuing to find our worth and value around our economic models, capitalism in particular, is that this cannot be sustained forever.  It is a finite impossibility.  We cannot continue to make refuse and chalk it up to human activity, leftovers, garbage.

First, the garbage has to have somewhere to go.  The world can only sustain so many antique stores.

But secondly, and more importantly, for capitalism to work on its continued skewed trajectory, we face major obstacles of capital flow (and capital here can be the things that are refuse, garbage aka products or even current money looking for an investment home, etc.)  Economic theory aside here’s the problem: capital only exists as it is able to flow and find new depositories and the places into which capital can flow are finite because the world is not infinite.  In other words, capital has to keep flowing: newer markets, people, places, countries, ideas, needs, demands, etc., but as developing nations become developed and as the resources to meet those developments continually become tapped, we face a major obstacle: capital hits a dead end.  It has nowhere else to go.

What happens when capital flow hits the Hoover Dam of economic expansion?

For example, David Harvey powerfully argues that measuring economic success and growth against annual GDP % is a huge mistaken.  First, it is commonly held that 3% growth via GDP supports a healthy economy.  3% is an arbitrary % established whereby economists “know” that the world, and specific countries, are producing a particular level of goods being consumed or being brought to market.  At 3%, it is deemed the economy is healthy and jobs are being produced.  But the problem is that 3% never stays 3%.  As the economy grows or expands that number becomes a compounded number, so that the real measure of growth is a compounded 3% year over year on the entire US economy!  Which means that for our economy to “move” or be “healthy” we have to grow our economy year over year to roughly the size of the ENTIRE US economy in 1970 each year and even further!  And that number just keeps getting bigger.  For us to remain “healthy” politicians incite these numbers as if they are manageable, but the reality is this can only continue to compound so long as capital has a place to go, which is why invisible money was created.  Invisible money, or money that doesn’t exist, allows capital to continually flow and consumption not immediately halt at the very unfortunate event of not having any actual money.

Thus, compounded production and consumption is actually encouraged via the capitalism at work in our present.  For those apologists of capitalism that want to argue its virtues I concur there are several, but these virtues do not change the coming dawn of late capitalism wherein we find ourselves up against the creation of antique malls, ever growing landfills, entire islands in the ocean known as garbage island, and capital overextending itself into non-existence, it’s very life being its very eventual contradiction.

Slavoj Zizek, cultural theorist and critic of the both Left and Right political movements, summarized the inherent contradiction of capitalism and production in his essay “The Prospects of Radical Politics Today.”  Writing on capitalism, its productive nature and critiquing Karl Marx  he says the following:

“What Marx overlooked is that, to put it in the standard Derridean terms, this inherent obstacle/antagonism as the “condi­tion of impossibility” of the full deployment of the productive forces [of capitalism] is simulta­neously its “condition of possibility”: if we abolish the obstacle, the inherent contradiction of capitalism, we do not get the fully unleashed drive to produc­tivity finally delivered of its impediment, but we lose precisely this productivity that seemed to be generated and simultaneously thwarted by capitalism – if we take away the obstacle, the very potential thwarted by this obstacle dissipates … Therein would reside a possible Lacanian critique of Marx, focusing on the ambiguous overlapping between surplus-value and surplus-enjoyment. (It is often said that the ultimate products of capitalism are piles of trash – useless computers, cars, TVs, and VCRs : places like the famous “graveyard” of hun­dreds of abandoned planes in the Mojave desert confront us with the obverse truth of capitalist dynamics, its inert objectal remainder. And it is against this background that one should read the ecological dream-notion of total recycling – in which every remainder is used again – as the ultimate capitalist dream, even if it is couched in the terms of retaining the natural balance on Planet Earth: the dream of the self-propelling circulation of capital which would succeed in leav­ing behind no material residue – the proof of how capitalism can appropriate ideologies which seem to oppose it.)

Capitalism Enjoy

What Zizek touches on here is that there is no way around the remainder of capitalism.  If we challenge capitalism at its core as a productive force (the very thing about it that is good) then we cease to have capitalism in its raw form and productivity ad infinitum.  Precisely because it is impossible for capitalism to produce enough is why it continues to produce what is possible: it’s own limits being its own drive and failure.  This is where Zizek says Marx missed it: take away the productive drive and the demon you are attempting to exorcise ceases to exist and so too does any economic will.  The notions of surplus value in things and surplus enjoyment have to go hand in hand via production and consumption because desire always creates abject remainder…and if there is a Lacanian dictum it is thus: Desire is Real.

But the negative consequences of the impossible possibility is refuse and production unabated and continual.  Heaps of garbage that we absolve as antiques or recast into a narrative of continual repurpose wherein all things are recycled and nothing is lost or damaged:  The capitalist dream.

The only question is: as you drive by rising man made mountains along interstates and you see your own closets…as you incarnate the 4.6lbs of trash you produce as a human each day and you realize that there are 8 Billion people on the planet doing the same…you have to ask yourself…can we afford to continue to have this dream or should we start dreaming something else for the sake of posterity?

Because one day we will all be forced to wake up.

Jesus is NOT the “reason for the season”

 

Jesus meme

First, there is Christmas…

Then, there is farce…

The subtle denial of a Holy-day that is held delicately in the balance of adoration and consumption, with the latter giving way to our actions while the former  is trapped in our sensibilities.

Our very way of celebrating it dialectically usurping its truest image.

As we push further into the season of Christmastide, the wave of incarnation supposedly still cresting before us, the season has all but ended.  Christmas trees will come down.  Dickinson’s villages will be put up.

Christmas is over.

There is no tide at the end of our Christmas; it has been lost.  There is no lasting effect of Christmas; its consummation occurred by 9am around countless Christmas trees throughout the world on December 25th.  The season that used to begin on Christmas day and extend into the New Year, has now given way to a fully secularized caricature even by those that say “Jesus is the reason for the season.”

Jesus is the reason for a season that lasts one day…a day that covers the eyes of the Christ with swaddling cloths.

Systemically, there is absolutely no theological understanding of what is occurring at Christmastide.  There is no wide spread reflection amongst those that believe the Christ events occurs in Bethlehem or Nazareth and what the meaning of that event is within the history of the world and the history of ideas.  There is no feast that occurs at twilight of the incarnation.  The season has no patterning that would make us assume culturally that our celebration has some particular Christian character.  The only character the season enjoys now is one of capitalist flavor and misplaced affections wherein we tell ourselves Christmas is not about “things” only to spend the majority of our time with “things” and thinking of the “things” we’d have liked to receive.

Say what we may, but Jesus is not the reason for the season.  He’s not even considered that by those that seem to say that quaint phrase the loudest…their actions denying their language.

Christmas is the lie we tell about ourselves to hide ourselves from our true selves cause the thought of us actually not caring about the “real reason for the season” is unbearable upon the selves that deceive themselves into thinking they care or that Jesus as the Christ of God matters in any real material way.

Christmas, as is now celebrated, is usurped in its very celebration.  Our very means of remembrance also containing the deconstruction of the event itself; we think we inaugurate a Savior but in fact we inaugurate his absolute meaninglessness.

A Christ that is good for nothing but to be born.  A Christ and his story that does not shape our lives more than the culture below the Christ into which he is received.

But this is problematic, because “Christ” and our embodiments of “Christmas” are oxymorons.

The very offensive and effacing concept of Christ does not fit alongside the marketplace of ideas in Christianity.  It doesn’t fit with how we talk, think and act upon Christmas.  Even simple things, such as a Christmas eve service, or a Christmas day service, has been deemed as bothersome because it interferes with the real meaning of the season: family and gift giving.  People who are devout in their faith, those that scream conservatism the loudest and proclaim a culture war has been initiated upon Christmas are at the front of the line in relegating Christmas to a secular holiday void of any meaningful theological content, and certainly void of any religious formation other than grandpas prayer over the turkey at dinner.

Christians have lined up in hordes to embrace an empty Christology that is void of any real spiritual formation and caste in the appearance of the secular dismissal of anything more than a current rush to a particular morning that holds no more content than the anemic form of its arrival.

Christmas has become nothing more than farce…but it can be nothing but farce as the paranormal Christ stands beside it.  There is simply no more stark a comparison nor is there a more deep distinction than the theological content of advent, Immanuel, Christ-event, incarnation and the cultural and ecclesial embodiment Christmas suffers at the hands of those that “love Jesus” and those that could really care less.

The object of desire, the Christ, has been lost in a plenitude of objects that fill nothing but create a greater sense of void in society.  What Lacan calls Object a’s…substitutions for the real object of our desire that lead nowhere but to the end of unwrapping presents as children collectively sigh, “is that all?”

We say we desire the Christ, the event, yet our actions say we really desire the object below the Christ that is really the object of nothing.  It is nothing but brown monochromatic semblances coated with shiny illusions.  The trick is we have lied to ourselves about our intent and our desire when our intent and our desire are clearly seen via its own incarnation in the world.

Christ is not an alter event.  Christmas changes nothing.  There is no theological, ecclesiological, or cultural power to be had here…all of these mean nothing to the masses.  Christ has simply become the conduit through which we satiate our desires and participate in the quest for more…and it’s so perfect because we are able to do it all in the name of God.

How fortunate and perfectly ideal that God wants for us what we want for ourselves.

Jesus quote

We like the object of our power to continue to lure us into the imaginary lands of plenty and more and we like for the real Jesus to stay buried so we can turn him into our version of buddy Christ that approves of our blatant sacrilege.  We justify our excess in the face of a Christ that always excessively gave himself while incessantly refusing the excess of power and things.

Even at Christmas time, or moreover especially at Christmas time, we say that we want our kids to “have a good Christmas” and have “good memories,” but what does that mean besides give them a grand display of everything capitalism has to offer?  What makes a Christmas good?  And why must it be made to be so, when the very incredible event of incarnation and its theological content should be enough to keep us preoccupied as we hold hands with loved ones and actually spend time seeing the feast of the incarnation occur in one another?

I wonder what kind of Christians we are making by celebrating Christmastide as we do and not re-narrating the season to be more than the pinnacle of gifts that explode from under a tree.

If such is not the case, when was the last time Christmas was a spiritual experience for you?

When was the last time your faith was actually made stronger because of this special “season”?

Most Americans can’t name one…must be a first world problem.

But this farcical way of celebrating Christmas, or the Mass of Christ, is to be expected in a late capitalist and decaffeinated Christian society.

We do not value mystery.  We do not value a story that is more than characters and details…and we don’t not think deeply about our faith.

The Bible doesn’t require deep thinking because it is plainly obvious what it means…all the while we bore one another with a dead nativity that does nothing more but provide a photo op for our children’s programs.

Scripture is dead.  The nativity just a detail.  The characters just furniture to fill the room of the story.

Scripture only serves the purpose we have for it and the familiar stories of a tired family, a baby born in the still of the night and strange characters gathering around this child are just the details of how; they are not characters that subtly seek to subvert our sense of self and critique our presumed piety…and certainly there is no sense of a proleptic theological point being made by Matthew in this Gospel…because this would of course go against a plain reading of the Bible. (tongue in cheek)

The baby Christ has become “normal”; the nativity has become nothing more than something to defend in the public square…both have become so decaffeinated that there is effectually nothing that happens when we encounter them or think of them.  Rather than being an audacious story that seeks to challenge our worldviews, we have traded in the para-normality of the event and its characters for something we can digest and feel good about a faith that we have given to ourselves since such self given faith never challenges anybody to be different or to seek forgiveness.

And we know this, but to make our idea of Christmas palatable, and our ideas of the details of these infancy accounts infallible, we simply lie aloud about our true intentions so we can justify the appearance of our actions.

But amdist all the deception, misplaced piety and Christians saying Jesus is “the reason for the season” when there is really no season at all and Jesus better not be the reason we indulge ourselves in fantasy…one thing remains: Christmastide.  And it refuses to be decaffeinated…even if our collective Christian experience insists on a faith that changes nothing, not even “believers.”

There are plenty of reasons for the season, but even Jesus knows he’s not one of them, especially a season that is already over.  Perhaps it is a good thing the season is fleeting…we’d hate to desecrate the Christ any further by making Christ a neo-liberal that would clearly celebrate his nativity like we do.

 

God is Nothing: Lacan Wrestles with Thing 1 & Thing 2

thing one and two

“In the symbolic order, the empty spaces are as signifying as the full ones; in reading Freud today, it certainly seems that the first step of the whole of his dialectical movement is constituted by the gap of an emptiness”

-Jacques Lacan in his “Response to Jean Hyppolite’s Commentary on Freud’s ‘Verneinung.’”

Everyone wants something.  They strive for something…some-thing.  We as a society are fixated on the things, the little ‘beings’ or objects to which our attention is directed and for which our work is given.  When we look at the world we see it through the lens of things, of a bunch of somethings, and we turn all of our ideas, hopes, aspirations and longings into various things that we can pursue, participate in or master.  The world is full of things, and as Hannah Arendt is apt to tell us, we have given the world around us the thing nature that it is; the world and its things are “thing-ified” (if I can so gently make that word up) because we have taken the world from what it is and we have conceived of the contents of the world within the limits of what constitutes thingness…what constitutes possession for only a thing can be possessed.

We work for homes, for cars, for piles of things.  We work to secure our lives through the things of our investments…we secure our relationships by the things we invest in them and we derive all meaning from the fact that we are able to take our ideas, generate an imaginary world and then divest ourselves of what is real in search of the always illusive thing.  This quest keeps us questing, keeps us defining, keeps us pursuing the thing/things.

We have made the world so dependent upon the idea of thingness that we cannot even conceive of anything that is not a thing.

I am here reminded of Dr. Seuss’s story The Cat in the Hat.

In this quaint little tale, all of everything (the state of affairs within the children’s home if you will) are fine.  Everything (which is really nothing if you remember…more on this in a few more paragraphs) is fine.  UNTIL someone comes into the life of the children and begins to give the room a “thing” nature.  The Cat in the Hat releases “things” into the house, which ironically disrupts everything (which was really nothing as the Mother left the children alone).  The Cat brings in the thing nature…even brings in real characters known as Thing 1 and Thing 2…and they do things, they play with things, they value the fun they are having with “every-thing” and it is this chaos of thingness that is valued…that even the children valued.

For a short while the “things” happening were a new creation, a new way of being, a new diversion from the nothing they were really experiencing.  They valued this new “thing” and they did not listen to the goldfish swimming in his bowl that was full of nothing and going nowhere, yet somehow the fish in the nothing place that goes nowhere was able to see what happens when “things” get out of control and usurp the space of nothing.  These things were valued, that is, until after several attempts by the goldfish sternly reminded the children that these “things” need to stop and “everything” needs to be cleaned up and ordered aright once again.  In other words, we need to get back to the real that is nothing.

The releasing of everything and its chaos into the nothingness of the empty home wreaked havoc even as it also preoccupied the children for a short time with new “things” to watch, see and do.  Into a room of nothing, everything was created…and everything that was created was shown to be nothing more than a diversion from the Real of life that happens apart from “thingness”…the  mundane space which conditions who we are…the space that is more determined by nothing than by the false ontology of thingness.  The children thought the “things” were fun and properly teleological in orientation, yet by the end of the story they discover it is a teleology that goes nowhere and does nothing more than distract us from what really conditions the spaces inhabited by our lives.

We have not given the world a thing nature for purely entertaining reasons as these children were so apt to do (though we have done this), but this thing nature has occurred because of our misdirected sense that what is and what will be is constituted more by the presence of a/the thing, than by nothing.  We have filled our worlds with things to rid ourselves of the nothing…yet the joke is on us.  We cannot rid ourselves of nothing even with the thing as Lacan so aptly notes above.

We have done this, not only in regard to the physical things we enjoy, but also into those metaphysical realities to which we give allegiance and service.  Of course, in our late capitalist culture, the world has taken on the very nature of the thing.  That is why we live.  But why has the thing nature also dictated how we think our faith, our God and the meaning of our lives?

Because we have so thoroughly conceived of the nature of reality as the nature of the thing, it seems that God, Jesus, faith, the ecclesiastical community, our salvation, etc., have all become nothing more than a long list of things; a long list of possessions that give us identity.  They are things that are, things that matter, things that will be…God is nothing more than the thing to which I pray or the thing I fear.  The church is the thing I do on Sunday to ensure I am in proper relationship with the Thing I call God so that this God will bless me with another thing.  My faith is the thing that makes me who I am and conditions how I engage the world…and my salvation is the thing I have because so long as I have it this thing is mine…and because I have all these things, I AM SOMETHING.  To be without these ultimate metaphysical things, things that are grossly conceived as all other things in our language and habits, is to mean that I am nothing, no one, not a something.  These things make me who I am.

I can “see” them.

I can “feel” them.

I can experience them.

I can “touch” them.

I can think them.

These things have become concretized into our thing schematization because we can think the world only in relation to the thing.

But this is where we are wrong.

The thing does not make us who we are or create our worlds.  The thing has no ontological purchase of its own; its only purchasing power comes from us who invest the currency of the thing with value.   The thing is not an end and it is not a beginning.  Thingness is not realness and it is not absoluteness.   We think our lives, worlds and faith(s) are all about being properly directed toward the right thing, but what Lacan discloses to us is that it is not the thing that shapes who we are or where we are going; it is the nothing that does all this.  We want to think there is something, yet our lives are all really the result of the reality of the nothing…the nothing that is disguised as some-thing via the thing that is really nothing apart from the nothing that makes it a thing.

All that may sound a bit circular, confusing even.  I promise I am not writing to confuse.  So let me break this down and then argue the point a bit further:

There is not anything other than nothing.  Nothing is…there is no such thing as a thing apart from the nothing which gives rise to the world in our vision, though this is a world that rests its things on nothing; it’s not a world that ends nothing with a world of things.

We have so conceived of the world via a thing nature, or a particular type of ontic character, that we have left behind the role that nothing plays in making us everything we are…even as this idea of absence and nothing is still nowhere to be found.

Nothing conditions how we speak, what we value, what we pursue, those “things” we are fearful to pursue.  Nothing is what places us where we are and it is only relation to that nothing that meaning can be created or generated.  This is one of the main thrusts of nihilistic philosophy.  It is not a philosophy that argues for some sort of black hole abysmal reality where there is no meaning; on the contrary, it is only because nothing is that everything can have meaning for a thing only has meaning in relation to nothing.  Apart from this frame of reference, a thing is lost in itself without any analogous referent from which it may make sense.  Apart from nothing a thing is not even a thing…and therefore, apart from nothing we too are nothing.  Thus, nothing is.  So while we strive to forget nothing by thinking everything, we lost in the process an important part of ourselves and what makes us who we are.

Lacan goes well beneath Heidegger’s own idea of Geworfenheit here…

Lacan notes, “But the subject has a no less convincing sense if he encounters the symbol that he originally excised from his Bejahung.  For this symbol does not enter the imaginary, for all that.  It constitutes, as Freud tells us, that which truly does not exist; as such, it ek-sists, for nothing exists except against a supposed background of absence.  Nothing exists except insofar as it does not exist.”

He goes on to the quote at the beginning of this essay, “it certainly seems that the first step of the whole of the dialectical movement is constituted by the gap of an emptiness.”

What Lacan is observing in his response to the famous psychoanalyst Jean Hyppolite is that our lives are negotiated more from the gaps of nothing than by the imaginary worlds we have built for ourselves.  Nothing is the condition of meaning because the symbolic order rests on this negation of things in order for meaning to be construed.  It is only  because there is an absence that a presence appears.

The bejahung that Lacan mentions is Freud’s term for our original primordial inception into the symbolic order.  It is the original affirmation that we did not affirm.  Our place in this order, an order which does not exist but exists apart from itself, is really nothing…it’s a place we cannot place anywhere, it is nowhere, yet its constitution as nowhere means that it is the nothing that is somewhere.  The bejahung is our inception into that order (language, symbols, sounds, meaning, body language, ideas,etc.), an original inception that is no longer available to us but surfaces in us at moments of repressed desires, visions, déjà vu, dreams, etc.  It is the place into which we are plunged and emerge with the symbolic, with language, yet we cannot recount the making of the symbolic or its highs or lows.  We are people of symbols yet the genesis of the symbols have long been lost in ek-sistence of the bejahung that’s nothingness allows for the existence of other symbolic things, which really do not exist.  Or as Lacan notes, “Nothing exists except insofar as it does not exist.”

Thus, our worlds and the things we fill them with are really nothing and they reside nowhere but the places we have granted them to reside.  The emptiness of our minds, the places where we do not think but where we really are, is more indicative of our condition then are all the things we create and all the imaginary’s we fabricate.

So if our worlds are really conditioned by nothing and the foreclosure of our language into a specific symbolic order, what does this mean for those things that mean most to us…those things that we can place our in our hands, our heart and our minds?

It means that we are not driven from or toward the places we can grasp, but we are perpetually the creation of what has grasped us even as it has nothing to grasp us with.  The gap between there and here, where and there, is the gap and nothing that makes us as much who we are as all the fabricated things we have created to hide from the gap that is nothing, yet has made us everything.

These spaces that are nothing are really the spaces that fill our lives…it is the nothing of the lives we wish we could have that surface in our consciousness and produce the world we think we see.  Only because the fabrications of our worlds do not really exist, because they are nothing, do they present themselves into the symbolic order as an imaginary thing.  The fact that things appear to us in the present and we aim for them in the future, only do so because they are nothing and do not exist anywhere, thus our very “thing” nature of the world is really driven by the world we do not see toward the place we do not know with “things” that aren’t really there…meaning they are the things that are not really us or the real that remains allusive.

If the thing nature of the world we have created is merely that which has taken us away from the place of nothing, and nothing…or that which is no longer available to us, is that which constitutes our moving, thinking and being, than what does that say for our faith and its objects if we continue to call them things?  Perhaps, to begin this conversation aright…we should begin not by saying all those things that are things and then seek about defining them in our possession…but perhaps with Lacan, we should take a more apophatic approach.

For if as a people of faith we claim that God is where we come from, where we are and where we are going…perhaps we are not discussing a thing known as God…

Perhaps what we are saying is that God is nothing

Jesus and the Occupy Movement: Why the Political Left (& Right) needs the Church

jesus-occupy-wall-street

As the single largest conference of the leftist and liberal political agendas gathered this Week at Pace University in NYC, I found myself wandering back through my own experience of this Conference and wanting to offer some ruminations not only on its seminal importance, but also its shortcomings as a movement.

When I went to LeftForum last year, it was galvanized by a huge presence of activists and leftists of a hundred different stripes…even a Ron Paul Leftist group was present. They were all there, descending upon the City and the University that is within a few blocks of the sights of Protest in the fall of 2011, gathering to discuss the future of our economy, our politics, our government, our social constitution…and attempting to think alternatives to the greedy hubris and totalitarian politics that is making an indelible imprint on each of our lives. It was an act of the word Glen Beck hates the most, Social Justice, a movement attempting to define and grapple with what it means to live just lives, fair lives…lives that are not stacked against the proverbial “house” that seems to be holding all the cards.

Those that attended the conference were admittedly having discussions on how to, in the words of Barack Obama, “fundamentally change” America. They were talking about folks like Marx, Trostsky, Lenin, etc. They were attacking neo-liberal political agendas and asking how we might move past these hegemonic forms of life. It was a critique of culture and it was admittedly coming from the Left.

Unlike outlets like FoxNews would have us believe, these people were not covert in their demonstrations. They were not trying to subvert the Constitution in a shrouded room with dimly lit lights and coverings over the windows. On the contrary, most of the people I talked to admitted the problems with our democracy. They went after “archaic” documents such as the Constitution, and most humbly and admirably, many of them were able to demonstrate how leftist politics and “socialism-lite” have always been a part of America’s history. Socialism and Marxism literally goes back to Thomas Paine (the darling Common Sense author of the political Right) and Abraham Lincoln (who was reading and being influenced by Marx in the 1850’s…Marx even supported Lincolns invasion of the South), both personages who conservatives worship as if American Gods and to Lincoln we have affirmed this divinity erecting a temple in Washington to commemorate his divinity. Time would fail to recount the rise of lobbyism under Grant, the creation of social “safety” nets under FDR, and the “great society” given to us by LBJ.

The attendees of the Conference know the system (and our financial and political ways of beings are systems) is so complex and multi-faceted that there are truly no simply solutions. But just because the task seems formidable and perhaps irresolvable within a complacent electorate, doesn’t mean we should just surrender the cause of justice and mute the prophetic voices that must call systematic evil to the floor. America is a difficult project because the liberal democratic ideals upon which it was founded has now been merged with ideological sentiment that is logically inconsistent with the libertinism of authentic liberalism and the net result is literally crippling the country…and there are many folks feeling the buckling of our national knees. The system simply cannot sustain itself at its current pace…we must seek alternatives…or we must be willing to accept the logical ends of capitalism unchecked and production unabated.

That their cause is noble and good is not a question. Whether or not one finds the caricature of my experience palpable or not, is also a mute point. At bottom, Occupy was about speaking truth to power, saying “hell no” to those that want to trample and prey on unsuspecting consumers…even if their ignorance is partially their fault, and it was seeking alternatives outside the framework of laissez faire capitalism (even though this type of Capitalism has been dead in this country for at least 100 years).

One of those new frameworks being explored was Christian theological tradition. This is what our group of folks was there to explore… I was part of a panel that was largely comprised of McAfee School of Theology @ Mercer University affiliated pastors and theologians that presented on the topic of global capitalism and Christianity. Our panel was chaired by the Rev. Dr. Graham Walker. We baptists were engaging the far left political and activist elements alive and well in America and around the globe.

As a group we learned several things that are extremely important for Occupy and our Churches to note.

We were asking the question, “Is there anything that the Christ event, scripture and Christian history can say to this current predicament?” And, surprise, surprise, we were the ONLY ones exploring this issue. Last year, out of 400 panels, we were the ONLY panel exploring Christian theology and economics as it interfaced the global economic meltdown.

This, however, is problematic…it is a problem because most human beings are religious in nature, in habits, in orientation, even those that claim irreligiosity or atheism. People organize their lives around principles and ideas that transcend the immediacy of their bodies, even if that which transcends our bodies is a transcendent idea of the self regulated self (which is a problem if no one’s ever told you). There is an “other” idea, concept, thing, being, whatever, that drives us toward further existence…a purpose that grounds who we are and what we value…and this value of all values is what concerns us. It is how we make sense of the meaning of life.

Most people are religious because the religious does not confine itself to a specific ontology; it is, rather, couched in various ideologies which may, or may not, be theological in orientation…Even 60 years ago Paul Tillich was making this argument…and today Slavoj Zizek is the cultural reminder of the religious value of our ideologies.

But this begs the question…if Occupy was a movement that was engaging that which is most complex in the world…and that which is felt by us all…how could it proclaim to answer these questions for the majority when most of the majority answers the tough questions of life through a lens of faith?

How can a movement tackle systemic evil when it has no paradigm for engaging evil other than in subjective moral leanings or ideological preferences from the Left…especially those that robustly discount how most people in the world determine value and a sense of good or evil?

Over and over we heard, and many saw on the news, signs that were proclaiming “We are the 99%”…as if to suggest that those in Occupy were the “common joe” and fighting for “main street” when all the while the folks that instigated the movement, and the folks that hosted LeftForum, are really part of the 1%. They are part of the academic world that has all but forgotten the word “God” or faith. Marx has become their Christ…the dead Lenin their Pope. Revolution has become their New Jerusalem and the Parousia is the place where their ideologies take a physically manifest form in the much anticipated, and not too distant, future.

“We are the 99%.” Or so we are told by all the academic elites and activists that litter the hallways and conferences of the Occupy Movement and LeftForum.

But this is not the 99%…and to try to solve the problems of the majority with an ideology of the very very marginally populated academic elite will not gain the necessary grass roots to effect real change in real systemic ways. The leaders of the movement and its intelligentsia are generally agnostic, if not adamantly atheistic. At last Springs Left Forum, one panelist even described herself forthrightly not as an activist or socialist, but as an atheist. This is the way she wants people to primarily identify her…her first impression if you will. And the movement claims no religious motivation??? Indeed, the 99% that Occupy is fighting for is most certainly atheist, right?

To neglect the religious when dealing with some of cultures most difficult problems is to neglect the singular most significant resource that humanity has used to make sense of the world.

The problem with Occupy is not its concerns or even its methods. The movement is thoroughly a justice movement, and despite the bad media attention, it is prophetic in its content.

The problem with many folks in the Occupy movement, however, is that most of them embrace historical perspectives that are antagonistic toward religion and they continue to foster such antagonism. Many of the leaders in the movement are pro-Marxist, pro-Leninist, pro-Anarchist, pro-socialist, pro-Communist, to name just a short few, and they embrace many of the great ideological thinkers behind these movements. Unfortunately, many of the ideologues that generated these many “isms” were not careful enough thinkers and they dismissed religion as myth rather than metanarrative.

What the Occupy Movement (and what this year’s Conference will also most likely miss) fails to see is that they can never effect change in a multi-contextual way if they are adamantly opposed to the theological persuasions of the 99%.

Most people in America believe in God. Most of the working class finds their faith very important to them.

Most of America, the large portions of Americans that are victims to the financially systemic evil we find all around us, believes that God is important and that their lives have divine purpose. They are not buying the famous Marxist line that religion is an “opiate” regardless of if they even understand that analogy within its historical context or not.

If those at the front of the Occupy movement insist on defending the 99 and insist that they are the 99, they need to realize that unless they embrace some form of theological underpinnings their movement will have little effect and it will generate little excitement at the grassroots level. It will remain an academic sideshow with little relevance in the real world.

People need devotion to drive them. They need something greater than themselves to galvanize their spirits and organize around. They need hope and salvation/wholeness. For many people, the simple nothingness of the concrete world is nothing for which they should sacrifice themselves or their families.

When I was at the Conference I was speaking with a lady who is a Methodist activist within the Occupy Movement. She noted the loathing of religion by the elites within the movement and how their own ideology was inconsistent with the working class they were attempting to help. Much of Occupy is fighting for those marginal groups of people that are exploited for financial gain. They tout their movement as a justice movement, yet they fail to embrace the theological grounding upon which social justice is predicated in most major world religions. Social justice and equality is not a Westernly originated idea. It is a religious idea encased within a religious framework.

Occupy (and it’s morphological forms that will precede from this movement) should realize that they need the churches as much as the churches need them. The Church is the defender of the poor. It is the organization that can speak truth to power and do so under the protection of religious liberty. It is the place in which wholeness and salvation are united into a concept of well being and restoration/restitution of our humanity. It is the bearer of sacred scripture, the text that has the power to convict and call into question the evils of the world, not reinforce either a Left or Right political agenda! The very ministry of Jesus was about releasing the captive and condemning the political and financial structures around his ministry. The church should join hands with those fighting exploitation and stand alongside equality and reconciliation in an attempt to create a world that more faithfully looks like the Kingdom of God and less like a reflection of the greed that penetrates the heart of a capitalistic society.

Only in doing so can anything be truly “occupied,”…and strangely, only in this way, can anything beside our selves be an incarnate manifestation of a Kingdom not of this world. Luckily for us, we have an example of an “occupation” in humanity that effectively did change reality and serves as a salvific paradigm for us all.

 

Christianity and Capitalism: The Enigma of Capital

Protests at Zuccotti Park

Protests at Zuccotti Park

A Small Explanation

This review is forthcoming in the next Review and Expositor Theological Journal. The theme of the Spring 2013 issue is “Christianity and Economics” and it is largely the product of a series of papers presented by myself and a host of other academic and pastoral colleagues at last years LeftForum @ Pace University in New York City.

The end of 2011 was characterized by a great upheaval and public response to unchecked capitalism across the globe, particularly as the meltdown known as the Great Recession continued to have lingering effects. Images of Zuccotti Park and Occupy protests arose over night as it was becoming more and more clear that nation States and big money had disclosed the real nature of their corrupt union via bailouts and the mystical creation of excess liquidity.

Into this vacuum of despair emerged a number of grassroots and academic responses.

Indeed, the very grassroots Occupy movement was not the work of the proletariat; it was the brain child of professors of anthropology that were able to organize this resistance to a system that has become too big for anyone to stop. Too often, however, the literary and media aspects of the resistance and cultural critique were from the far left intellgentisa. This, and unfairly so, allowed too many folks across various political and religious persuasions to dismiss these events as fringe movements of the Left that were simply trying to usurp societal order and restore the ever feared “S” word: SOCIALISM. Elitist, agnostic leftist and progressive academics and activists were the ones loudly critiquing the many hallmarks of capitalism. Secular culture was engaging and judging itself, while the church and theologians stood idly on the sidelines not wishing to engage this very material problem. While some of our pastoral colleagues in New York were leading marches carrying the golden bull of Wall Street, images that reminded us all of a similar biblical incident involving another golden bull, other pastors were left lost in the gaze of capital and speechless as to how the Christ event might actually become suddenly very practical.

Into this context, my colleagues and I considered it a worthy endeavor to go the scene of the Protests, New York, and to ask in what ways might Christianity challenge the systemic evil of our current economic forms of exchange and how might we communicate this to a population that largely sees Christianity complicit in the conservative neo-liberal economic agenda?

To this end, we were the only group of Christian pastors and theologians that presented papers at last years LeftForum, a conference that had nearly 400 various presentations and speaking engagements. We were the group that refused to allow post-metaphysical thinking to drive the agenda of critiquing the systemic economic ills plaguing us all. While our leftist colleagues were all around us invoking the names of Trotsky, Marx, Luxemburg, Lenin, etc., we were invoking Christian hyperbole, Hebrew Bible social justice texts, Continental Christian theology and even the likes of the most evangelical of them all, John Wesley.

We were challenging the assumption that in order for one to offer an alternative to the unchecked flow of capital and the eschatological dead end of accumulation, one must also abandon Christianity and theological reflection. In fact, as will be argued in some our essays for the upcoming journal, one is not able to stand with the 99% if there is an a priori dismissal of one of the single largest components that the 99% use to navigate the world and make sense of their existence: faith/religion.

We partook in the project with the firm belief and resolve that if we will but only listen to the voices of the Christian past and present, we will find a wealth of resources that will not only call the evil of our present capitalist driven society to the floor, but it will also refuse to let Christian theology and praxis be co-opted by ideological forces that try to confuse their democratic or republican agenda with Christianity. This has gone on too long and it must stop.

To this end, along with various articles that will propose a revolutionary core of Christian theo-economic discourse, several reviews will be contained in this journal that reflect Christian pastors and theologians engaging in texts that are primarily economic in nature. The purpose is to embody how theology and economics might begin a dialogue that is being sorely neglected by much of the church. People of faith should not be disinterested in these matters, for the very folks to which ministry is offered are the ones who are living this economic hell that seems to hang over us like a never ending purgatory.

Thus, this review of David Harvey’s Enigma of Capital is another aspect of engaging Christianity with contemporary economic theory and making resolute our claim that Christianity is not something that is passe or irrelevant during this time of economic change; indeed, it is pivotal if we are to engage cultural phenomena and respond in holistic ways that are not only healthy and economically viable but also comprehensively salvific.

harvey-enigma-of-capital-front-cover

THE REVIEW

Professor Harvey’s book is a passionate Marxist analysis of the current economic meltdown and a review of how libertine capitalism has created the current wreckage. His thesis: capital flow is a system of exchange that is built upon inherent contradictions and fabrications that will organically create more crises than solutions.

He notes that various capitalist crises have been recurring with ever greater frequency since the 1970’s (the emergence of credit) and that this most recent Great Recession is simply a foretaste to the destabilizing of systemic neo-liberal economics that cannot continue ad infinitum under the weight of its own means of production and expectation of a compounded 3% growth. This is why Dr. Harvey calls the recent economic calamity a crisis; it is the rationalization of the irrationality of continual capital accumulation and capital flow.

While economists and politicians the world over are replete with reasons for the current financial crises, Harvey summarizes the issue with a simple definition of capital early in his text. Upon rehearsing the latest “Disruption,” writing one of the most concise synopses of the recent global meltdown and its many domino effects, Harvey presents to us the central concern of his text: Capital flow. He writes, “Capital is not a thing but a process in which money is perpetually sent in search of more money.” This central idea for Harvey’s work demonstrates how this perpetual search is the enigmatic instigator of capitalist crises.

This is the problem with capital: its goal is itself. Capital is a means of creating surplus (profit) relative to the cost and value of services or products produced. This surplus of production, known as capital, has to find newer places of expansion so that continued production and surplus can be absorbed in the market that would allow the process to continue unabated.

Capital, however, is beginning to encounter obstacles that disrupt this flow. Capitals relationship to labor, nature, the lack of new markets into which capital may expand, and excess liquidity to pacify the capitalist symptom are just a few of those obstacles. When this happens, economic crises emerge. Crises disclose the unstable logic of capital, and thereby create the potential for newer systems of exchange that might prevent future occurrences. As Harvey notes, “Crises are moments of paradox and possibility out of which all manner of alternatives, including socialist and anti-capitalist ones, can spring.” Ironically, capital ends up creating an environment in which its own future is questionable.

The coherence of Harvey’s argument is very structured and easy to follow. The text has eight chapters, but it can easily be divided into two sections. Section I (chapters 1-5) is the description of the global meltdown, along with the definition, character and polyvalent functions of capital. This section is a rigorous dialogue with Marxist theory and a scolding critique of neoliberal economic theory that has been embraced by most modern Western nation states.

Section II (chapters 6-8) offers a description of how the natural breakdown of capital affected the entire globe and how the endless accumulation of capital is reshaping many different environments into a form of “second nature” that could have catastrophic consequences. Concluding this section, Harvey offers his own resolutions to the crises capitalism that will certainly challenge his readers.

Overall, Harvey’s text is a good balance between common public prose and an academic analysis of capital. It is a text that can be approached by laymen of economic theory, yet also offer challenges for those of a more academic persuasion. While Harvey is clearly writing from the Left of the economic and political spectrum, his writing is very balanced and he often does a good job of swaying away from ideological quagmires that would distract his audience from his argument. Even though his solutions seem ultra-liberal and utopian, and these admittedly so, the genealogy of capital that he traces leaves little choice to continue down the same unambiguous path.

As an augment to this journal, it should be noted that pastors, theologians and ministers should be reading this material. Economic despair and imbalance is going to be one of the major challenges of the coming decades and the church needs to be informed. Harvey is describing the economic reality of those to whom we minister. If the church continues to be a handmaiden to particular political ideologies then it will continue to be speechless in the marketplace of discourse. Yet, if one is convinced that Christian theology can narrate a different world and is creative enough to offer an alternative reality to the dismal picture of conservative and liberal polarities, then just maybe our eschatology can be begin to take on the shape of Christ and refuse the shape of capital.