The Great Capitalist/Christian Resonance Machine

Capitalism, particularly over the past three decades, has become a “god” of American society, politics, economics and culture. When capitalism experiences crises (and it does experience many) it is not the system itself that is called into question, but intrusive government, regulators and other violators of the purported self-equilibrating “invisible hand of the market.” Furthering the deification of capitalism is its ties to Christianity. These ties have been examined, perhaps most famously and trenchantly by Max Weber, but the two have become intertwined and imbricated in new and destructive ways in our neoliberal era. According to William Connolly, it is this assemblage of dogmatic capitalism and right-wing evangelical Christianity that is responsible for much of the economic inequality, environmental degradation, cultural enmity, and myopic parochialism that we are experiencing today. To overcome this “evangelical-capitalist resonance machine,” and produce a more economically and ecologically just, pluralist and tolerant society, the democratic left must manifest an interim and pragmatic vision for the future by not only visualizing such a world but by fostering its own resonance machine composed of non-theists, progressive believers and anyone concerned with the present and future of our world.

In his book, Capitalism and Christianity, American Style, Connolly explains how this evangelical-capitalist resonance machine has manifested and proffers an alternative vision grounded in the “meliorism” of William James and the radical immanence of Gilles Deleuze. Connolly’s aim “is to place egalitarianism and ecological integrity more actively onto the political agenda in ways that protect the virtues of a more pluralist society.”[1] Retaining tolerance and pluralism as a new resonance machine is created is of utmost importance to Connolly. As Nietzsche calls for a “spiritualization of enmity,” between those of different faiths and worldviews, Connolly suggests that an assemblage of the democratic left must do the same. As Connolly notes, capitalism is far too volatile and chaotic of a system, historically bound and affected by culture, religion and politics to be easily confined or described. The “capitalist axiomatic” we live with today “includes the priority of private profit, a significant role for market pricing… the contract form of labor and the primacy of the commodity form.”[2] This capitalist axiomatic, stretched out and altered by its current assemblage with Christianity in its more right wing and vengeful iteration, is what Connolly finds so deep troubling and an obstacle to reducing income inequality and combating global climate catastrophe.

Connolly does not demonize Christianity as such; indeed, he works to demonstrate the importance of the leftist Christian tradition and the teachings of Jesus. As a self-identified non-theist committed to the Nietzschean “spiritualization of enmity,” Connolly notes the importance of the role of the Christian left in a new democratic left resonance machine: “It is critical for those on the non-Christian left (left-leaning Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, and non-theists) to pursue active alliances with Christians in several walks of life who resist the contemporary evangelical-capitalist machine.”[3] An ethos of revenge, animated by the violent eschatology of Revelations and popularized by Tim LaHaye’s Left Behind series, is a critical component of the Christian Right today. In short, the world is headed for a violent confrontation between good and evil, those who reject Christ (the Christ of their Christianity) are doomed to the fires of hell. Why show care and concern for others while they are on this earth? Furthermore, why even (despite biblical calls otherwise) take care of the earth?

For Connolly, the capitalist axiomatic, the ethos of revenge and other components of “cowboy” capitalism and right wing evangelical Christianity resonate with one another. This resonance in turn amplifies the power of the each. The media plays a powerful in this enterprise and Connolly pays particular attention to Fox News. Evangelicals who go to church on Sunday and listen to a message about the imminent return of Christ then switch on their Monday evening programming to hear Fox’s pundits decrying the faulty science of climate change. These ideas, the return of the messiah and a complete rejection of climate science, resonate with another. This continual reverberation and reinforcement creates what Connolly calls the evangelical-capitalist resonance machine. The alliance between “cowboy” capitalism and right wing evangelical Christianity “folds similar spiritual dispositions into somewhat different ideologies and creeds.” The machine is continually augmented by “similar spiritual dispositions,” such as the belief in providence in the marketplace and God’s providential plan for history. Essentially, the machine is manufactured through the articulation of mutually reinforcing creeds and politico-spiritual ideas that resonate with and amplify one another.

One of the critical interconnections between the capitalist and evangelical Christian assemblage is a belief that the capitalist enterprise is “the site where divine providence finds its most salient worldly expression.”[4] As God has a plan for history, revealed in Revelations, the free market is guided by a providential plan and thus better left untouched. Connolly contrasts this notion of the providence of the market and God with what he calls immanent naturalism. For Connolly, “if the world is not designed by god it is apt to be more unruly in its mode of becoming or evolution than can be captured entirely by a set of law like statements.”[5] This is an ontology of becoming in a world of “emergent causality.” Just as a confluence of forces in fifteen century Geneva (Calvinism, the attraction of artisans to the city, and efforts by the Vatican and secular powers to limit one another) converged to form a proto-capitalist system, new systems composed of resonance machines, with parts lacking an intrinsic drive towards a determined whole, can and will be formed through emergent infusions and assemblages. The point, for Connolly, is that we do not fall into the trap of the “hubris of total explicability,”[6] in trying to compose, predict or manufacture a new system. What immanent naturalists can do is “occupy strategic junctures at which new dangers and possibilities appear, intervening in ways that might help to move the complex in this way rather than that, accepting some conditions to ward off others.”[7] There will of course be stumbling blocks and mistakes along the way, but this is what we must accept while militating “for a global equilibrium that supports human life with decency.”[8]

Utilizing the framework of immanent naturalism with an existential focus on becoming, Connolly calls for the democratic left to visualize an alternate future in which substantial progress towards building a more economically equitable and ecologically just society has been made within the capitalist system. The task for the left is then to work back from this vision implementing reforms in an effort to actualize the image. As opposed to the providential image of the market propounded by its most ardent adherents, Connolly views capitalism through the prism of volatility. Indeed, as Magdoff and Yates note, since the mid-1850’s the US system has experienced thirty-two recessions or depressions.[9] This volatility must be recognized and militated against. Connolly’s pragmatic and modest approach is grounded in what William James called “meliorism”, which suggests that “reflective action taken in concert at the strategic moments might, given a measure of good luck, promote a better world or forestall the worst.”[10] From Deleuze, Connolly appropriates the notion of immanence in the world, asserting that the world is a continued process of becoming. Here the democratic left must recognize that which is and work to assemble an alternative resonance machine out of extant elements. In the closing chapter, Connolly asserts “a series of positive existential orientations, relational tactics, local strategies, academic reforms, microeconomic experiments, large social movements, media strategies, shifts in economic and political ethos, state policies and cross-state citizen actions are needed”[11] as components of this resonance machine. This machine must both explicate the dangers our current path may lead us towards while positing a positive interim vision with specific and pragmatic steps to reduce inequality, limit the possibility of ecological disaster and expand pluralism.

Connolly’s approach is decidedly accomodationist and inclusive. The ecumenical approach of Connolly provides the proper ground for those in faith-based communities to work together with non-theists or secular progressives. Jim Wallis, the founder of the progressive Christian organization Sojourners, notes that many secular progressives seem to have an “allergy to spirituality and a disdain for anything religious.”[12] The inability of non-theists, secular progressives, and progressives of all faiths to unite fosters an insuperable stumbling block to the assemblage of an alternative resonance machine. Connolly rejects this bifurcation of faith-informed progressives and secular progressives.

“I. Am. A. Spoken. Word. Robot.”

To be sure, these progressive voices exist in the Christian community and they eschew, what Cornel West calls, the “Constantinian Christianity” (or Christianity of the empire) of right-wing Christians that has so often been on the wrong side of history. Conversely, the prophetic tradition of Christianity, which connects to an “earthy Jesus who supports the downtrodden,” most famously espoused by Martin Luther King Jr., has a long history of affecting positive social change. As Bruce Bawer notes, the Religious Right works to “pass laws that restrict other people’s rights and preserve social and economic injustice, by contrast…members of such religion-inspired political movements as abolitionism and the Social Gospel always strove to secure other people’s rights and to improve their social and economic status.”[13] In an American society, where religion pervades, this assemblage, between secular progressive and progressive religionists, is a necessary component of any democratic left resonance machine.

While Connolly’s vision is compelling, enlightening, well-reasoned and pragmatic, it may not go far enough. The United States politico-economic system is profoundly sclerotic and dysfunctional. Our political elites are myopically concerned with re-election and fundraising. They are much more responsive to the dictates and demands of big corporations and moneyed interests than they are to addressing the grievances of their constituents. In a January 2011 New York Times/CBS News poll, Americans overwhelming demonstrated their preference for cuts to the bloated budget of the Pentagon (55%) as opposed to social entitlement programs like Medicare (21%) and Social Security (13%).[14] Yet, most new budget proposals, particularly the highly publicized and lauded proposal promoted by Republican Paul Ryan, call for massive restructuring of social entitlement programs, while barely touching the spending of the Pentagon. Who is it that wields power in America, defense contractors or the people? Connolly’s call for an interim vision whereby reforms can be made that will build a more economically and ecologically just future may simply be too little too late. Perhaps a more systemic revolution is needed.

We had to destroy the budget in order to save it

The gains made during the New Deal and the Great Society in the United States are under systematic assault by those who demonize the “welfare state.” As Connolly himself notes in the preface, the welfare state was once a symbol for economic programs for citizens and those in dire economic straits. Over the past 30 years, our discourse has demonized and stigmatized “handouts” doled out by the “welfare state.” The epithet “Welfare Queen” perhaps best epitomizes this phenomenon. Social safety nets continue to be eviscerated for the sake of austerity and the American working poor continue to suffer. Connolly calls for an interim vision, with steps moving towards a more just economic and ecological future within the capitalist system. Yet, it is difficult to envision a scenario in which this sort of change could be made within our current politico-economic system and cultural climate. Rather than reform within capitalism, we may best be suited by a fundamental departure from it.

The focus on immanence given by both Deleuze and Connolly give us a clue as to how this new system could arise. As aforementioned, who could have possibly predicted the emergence of proto-capitalism arising in 15th century Geneva? Moreover, the emergence of the evangelical-capitalism resonance machine was certainly not inexorable. As such, it is possible to look towards a future where an assemblage of workers, student activists, leftist intellectuals, artists, athletes, human rights activists, progressive members of different faith communities, and the disenfranchised minorities across the United States and throughout the world aggregate into a new resonance machine. This machine would survey the devastation and destruction reaped on so many poor people and the planet and work to create a new system. What would the imbrication and infusion of this assemblage produce? The point of Connolly’s immanent naturalism is to not try to assume total explicability, but rather to see what emerges and how the new system does or does not promote economic and ecological justice and adjust accordingly.

Connolly published Capitalism and Christianity in 2008. There is no doubt that in the three years seen this book has been written the evangelical-capitalist resonance machine has maintained its draconian stranglehold over American society. The election of an African-American President, who came to office on a tidal wave of optimism and hope for a better future, has done nothing to fundamentally change the landscape in which this system operates. President Obama’s election was certainly of symbolic importance. Moreover, the coalition of engaged citizens that united to elect him suggests how a new progressive assemblage could emerge. However, Obama’s policies on nearly every front have fallen in line with the neoliberal economic consensus. Furthermore, his foreign policy has been similar to the truculent American militarism that is ubiquitous in both Republican and Democratic administrations. Many on the left are profoundly disappointed in the ability of the Obama administration to affect positive progressive change. Much of Obama’s campaign rhetoric in 2007 and 2008 was directed in an implicit way towards the interim vision that Connolly writes about so eloquently. Yet, this vision now seems further away than ever.

Nonetheless, Connolly’s call for a piecemeal process whereby an alternative resonance machine assembles is both pragmatic and rational. His immanent naturalism and his emphasis on emergent causality point to a world where change emerges organically through a process of infusion and imbrication of material structures and ideas. His usage of Nietzsche’s “spiritualization of enmity” in regards to partisans of different faiths is a critical concept for those working to build an alternative system. Despite theological or ideological differences those who seek a more economically and ecologically just world, within the confines of the capitalist system or not, must begin to work together to combat the pugnacity and the power of the evangelical-capitalist resonance machine. In the bitterly divided and hyper-partisan political climate of the United States, Connolly’s hope for an interim vision within capitalism, a “god” of American discourse, may be the best we can hope for.

Connolly calls for us to accept a tragic ontology whereby we reject providential teleology and the notion that humans can fully master our surroundings. Indeed, what we must do is “cultivate temporal sensitivity to how this or that concatenation of events could issue in the worst.”[15] This tragic vision assumes that humans will never be able to properly conceive of the proper order of things, much less control them. What we can do, and in this notion Connolly is heavily indebted to William James, is essentially accept that we are limited in our ability to affect change, yet at the right moment know that reflective action could “promote a better world or forestall a worst.”[16] It is here where Connolly’s perspicuous pragmatism and intellectual modesty shine through. There is certainly the possibility of a new system that promotes the good life for all, which does not inspire avarice and brutal competition nor pillage the earth of its natural resources. Through reflective action we can hope to promote a new resonance machine that reverberates through the democratic left and helps to create a better world. With this hope in mind, Connolly calls the left to accept a tragic vision to “deepen their appreciation of human limits amid the uncertainty of being” and as such, “heighten care for the world and the sweetness of life amid the dangers encountered.” Ultimately, the left can “draw upon this fund of positive energy to turn things in a more favorable direction.”[17]

Adam Gallagher

Notes

[1] William E. Connolly, Capitalism and Christianity, American Style (Durham: Duke University Press, 2008), XI.

[2] Ibid., 10.

[3] Ibid., 35.

[4] Ibid., 140.

[5] Ibid., 80.

[6] Ibid., 85.

[7] Ibid., 86.

[8] Ibid., 92.

[9] Fred Magdoff and Michael D. Yates, The ABCs of the Economic Crisis: What Working People Need to Know (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2009), 29.

[10] Connolly, Capitalism and Christianity, 121.

[11] Ibid., 144.

[12] Jim Wallis, God’s Politics (San Francisco: Harpers, 2009), 346.

[13] Bruce Bawer, Stealing Jesus: How Fundamentalism Betrays Christianity (New York: Three Rivers Press, 1997), 192.

[14] CBS News/New York Times Poll, “The Economy, the Budget Deficit and Gun Control,” January 20, 2011, http://www.cbsnews.com/htdocs/pdf/Jan11_Econ.pdf.

[15] Connolly, Capitalism and Christianity, 121.

[16] Ibid., 121.

[17]Ibid., 146.

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