Friday, December 7, 2012

Tomorrow Belongs to Me. Not.

Paul Adams

When the Mensheviks walked out of the Petrograd Second Congress of Soviets, on October 25, 1917 (Julian calendar), thereby enabling the Bolsheviks to establish their dominance, Trotsky famously declared: "You are pitiful, isolated individuals! You are bankrupts. Your role is played out. Go where you belong from now on—into the dustbin of history!"

Ronald Reagan made ironic use of the famous phrase when he addressed the British House of Commons on June 8, 1982: "... freedom and democracy will leave Marxism and Leninism on the ash heap of history."

Whether or not Nikita Khrushchev actually banged his shoe at the UN in 1960 is a matter of dispute - eyewitnesses differ.  But that he said "We will bury you," he himself admitted: "I once said, 'We will bury you,' and I got into trouble with it. Of course we will not bury you with a shovel. Your own working class will bury you."

The Nazis shared this sense of the inevitability of victory, that history was on their side, something well captured in the creepily stirring scene in Cabaret where the young Nazi sings "Tomorrow belongs to me" - itself an ironic reprise of the even more famous Marseillaise scene in CasablancaThat scene itself seems like a defiant answer to actual Nazi "tomorrow belongs to us" propaganda - think of Leni Riefenstahl's Nazi classic, Triumph of the Will.  (Casablanca was made during WWII when France was still under German occupation and the actors' tears were real - nothing in the script called for crying.)

What reminded me of all this is the repeated use in utopian-statist politics of left and right of the theme that history is on our side, resistance is futile and will be crushed.

In the less sinister soft totalitarianism of today's supporters of abortion and same-sex marriage - neither of whose representatives are willing to engage in rational debate with their opponents, preferring to smear them as haters, bigots, misogynists, or homophobes - we see the same sense of historical inevitability as if the matter had been definitively settled and there was nothing to debate. This rhetoric of inevitably is often combined with a semi-mystical adoration of the leader.  We see this most recently   in the secular (or is it?) messianism surrounding and encouraged by Barack Obama.  Check out the quotes and pictures collected by the Obamessiah site, like these:

"We have an amazing story to tell," she said. "This president has brought us out of the dark and into the light."
-- Michelle Obama

"Obama is, of course, greater than Jesus."
-- Politiken (Danish newspaper)

"No one saw him coming, and Christians believe God comes at us from strange angles and places we don't expect, like Jesus being born in a manger."
--Lawrence Carter

"Many even see in Obama a messiah-like figure, a great soul, and some affectionately call him Mahatma Obama."
-- Dinesh Sharma

"We just like to say his name. We are considering taking it as a mantra."
-- Chicago] Sun-Times

"A Lightworker -- An Attuned Being with Powerful Luminosity and High-Vibration Integrity who will actually help usher in a New Way of Being"
-- Mark Morford

"What Barack Obama has accomplished is the single most extraordinary event that has occurred in the 232 years of the nation’s political history"
-- Jesse Jackson, Jr.

"This was the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal."
-- Barack Obama

"Does it not feel as if some special hand is guiding Obama on his journey, I mean, as he has said, the utter improbability of it all?"
-- Daily Kos

"He communicates God-like energy..."
-- Steve Davis (Charleston, SC)

"Not just an ordinary human being but indeed an Advanced Soul"
-- Commentator @ Chicago Sun Times

"I'll do whatever he says to do. I'll collect paper cups off the ground to make his pathway clear."
-- Halle Berry

"A quantum leap in American consciousness"
-- Deepak Chopra

"He is not operating on the same plane as ordinary politicians. . . . the agent of transformation in an age of revolution, as a figure uniquely qualified to open the door to the 21st century."
-- Gary Hart

"Barack Obama is our collective representation of our purest hopes, our highest visions and our deepest knowings . . . He's our product out of the all-knowing quantum field of intelligence."
- Eve Konstantine

"This is bigger than Kennedy. . . . This is the New Testament." | "I felt this thrill going up my leg. I mean, I don't have that too often. No, seriously. It's a dramatic event."
-- Chris Matthews

In all of this we find a secularized version of Christianity - no wonder the Christian overtones of so many of the quotes above about Obama.  It is a salvationist view, a curious combination of mechanistic determinism - history is on our side and victory is inevitable - with a pure Will to Power unconstrained by reality.  It is mystical and technocratic at the same time.  It believes, in its modern form, that there is a body of scientific knowledge that, when properly applied by experts holding the levers of state power, can resolve all social problems.  It is anti-democratic to the core, holding the implicit wisdom of ordinary people over generations in utter contempt.

I am very interested in how this technocratic-utopian way of looking at things evolved, starting with nominalism (Duns Scotus, Ockham) and proceeding through Bacon and Descartes (fact-value split, mechanics-science as replacing teleology, the 'I' as somehow outside and above nature and manipulating it in the interest of gaining power...) through the Enlightenment and French Revolution to Nietzschean will-to-power on one hand and rationalistic scientism on the other.

Underlying it all are the only apparently opposed ideological elements of voluntarism and mechanistic or crude determinism - both of which you find in Stalinism. In theology voluntarism has several variants, but roughly we may say it emphasizes the will and power of God in contrast to his Reason or ours.  It sees God as unconstrained by logic or his own laws (if indeed he has any laws).

In Marxism, voluntarism emphasizes the centrality of will as opposed to the balance of forces and the economic and other determinants of the constraints and possibilities of a particular situation. Voluntarism and economic or historical determinism can appear as opposites, the one suggesting that anything is possible if our will and determination are strong enough, the latter that history takes place behind our backs, its forces producing the rise and defeat of capitalism and the victory of socialism independently of human will.  One emphasizes the subjective state of the agents of revolution and especially its leaders, the other can warrant a kind of passivity, since progress and change happen independently of our will.  We can use our intellects to study the nature of capital, but we do not need to get up early and go down to the factory gates to sell the revolutionary newspaper.

But in practice voluntarism and determinism of this kind often reinforce each other.  As we see in the "tomorrow belongs to me" scene, the sense of inevitable victory inspires and stiffens the resolve of activists and those they seek to persuade.  Because history is on our side - historical determinism - the party and especially the Leader, to whom absolute obedience is owed, are right in whatever they decide and will - voluntarism.  Opponents are enemies of Progress, History, etc., who must be suppressed rather than debated.

All this is evident in today's "Tomorrow belongs to me" tendencies in current illiberal-liberal rhetoric, not to mention in the violence and irrationality of at least many forms of Islam that counterpose and subordinate reason to the Divine Will - a religion of revelation rather than of reason and revelation, fides et ratio.  In such a voluntarist theology (and politics) the good becomes whatever God (or the Leader) wills, rather than God (who is Logos and Love) willing it because it is good and in accord with reason and the real nature of things.  In any case, supporters of redefining the reality of marriage to separate sex from procreative acts and adult sexual relationships from children, or of defining contraception and abortion as "women's reproductive health care" - i.e., the very opposite of their real nature - do not lapse into complacent passivity as a result of their sense of inevitable victory.  They are energized by it and bring an intensified animus to their campaigns - Obama's re-election campaign was by some accounts the most negative and hateful in American history.

The connection among all this has to do with reality.  Thomist philosophy-theology is realist in the sense that it sees nature as a book written by God that we can learn to read (to the extent our limited human capacities permit) that has implications for how we can truly find ourselves by realizing our real nature and destiny.  That understanding of nature as the predictable, law-governed creation of a rational, non-arbitrary God (Logos) has implications for both science and ethics.  That's what made it possible for science to flourish and develop in medieval Christendom whereas it withered under Islam as that religion rejected a view of God as Reason-Logos and instead insisted on a voluntarist view - God can do whatever he wants, is not limited by reason or logic, can square the circle or order people to commit murder - and so make it right and indeed obligatory - if he wishes.

Reality thus constrains what we can actually do, whatever we may want or will.  So it limits tyrants, but also frames what in fact is the best way for us to live together (justice) or the best institutional setting in which to bear and educate children (marriage and family), as opposed to the voluntarist view that ends up as a kind of intolerant statism - these things are whatever the state says they are, and that comes down to power and the Triumph of the Will ... and anyone who dissents is a reactionary standing athwart the ineluctable forces of history.

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