Antienlightenment & “the Venerable Arsenal of Catholic Theology”: Themes and Weaknesses

McMahon, Darrin M. 2002. Enemies of the Enlightenment: The French Counter-enlightenment and the Making of Modernity. Oxford University Press.

Hylton, Forrest. 2019. Left Business Observer interview, December 5. http://shout.lbo-talk.org/lbo/RadioArchive/2019/19_12_05.mp3

Forrest Hylton describes 2019 upheavals in Latin America, including the unusual mystery of  the Brasilian middle class supporting conservative elites to stop middle class expansion and supports.

I suggest that Latin American politics are illuminated by (investigation into imperial power interventions and) Darrin McMahon’s analysis (2002) of the conservative Catholic French Ultra Royalists and the ideological legacy they have bequeathed the West.

Experientially, as an educated working-class American with some background at a Latin Americanist university and traveling in Latin America, I have generally found Latin American elites to be impossibly belligerent–savage–in interaction. They have so much passion, interest at stake. They rely on extraordinary patronage. Though Western commercial-state communications professionals work to convince working-class northerners that we share values and interests in common with Latin American elites, that comms strategy is only plausible so long as the Northern educated working class stays within the All-Inclusive and never actually meets a Latin American elite. It is a case where it is quite possible that Latin American elites and anyone with some democratic socialization do not share any common concept of what it is to be human. Here’s why.

As Corey Robin has observed (2011), conservatives are ideological opportunists surrounding a non-negotiable core commitment to inequality. Their interests (passions) are inflamed: Conservatives cannot imagine a world in which they thrive if others are allowed to develop like humans. Starting and staying with the assumption that hell is other people, conservatives are committed to the enslavement of humanity. Hence, distributed semi-sovereign human development is verboten, an abjected unthought in the conservative tradition.

(Side note on theoretical hybridity: Conservative-social democratic hybrid psychology centaur Svend Brinkmann reduces human development to a variety of managerialism, and then lays out a nice case for asserting boundaries on HR excesses in order to permit (not semi-sovereign human development but) distributed “moral integrity.”)

Correcting T.H. Marshall’s (1949) ideal-type argument naturalizing the advent of social citizenship rights, Albert O. Hirschman (1991) reminded us that conservatives push back, influencing knowledge and social developments in reaction to democratic institutional progress. For example, McMahon points out that although they lost to democracy in their time, French Ultra Royalists threw themselves upon the printing press, churning out blizzards of right-wing text (McMahon 192, 199), deeply influencing French (and beyond) common sense, politics, sociology, and philosophy.

Hirschman analyzed the three tactics conservatives use to defend their inequality pole: Arguments accusing democracy of perversity, futility, and jeopardy. But McMahon’s research leads him to insist that beyond the instrumentalist deployment of these Anti-enlightenment discursive tactics, religion is also an essential tool for conservatives in defending their core principle, inequality. The ancient, philosophically-elaborated, legally-codified, imperial-warlord support institution that is Roman Catholicism is necessary to sacralize inequality, and to demonize equality, universal human development. Roman Catholic tradition is necessary to laden the thought of shared sovereignty and distributed human development with irrational fear (Robin 2004). Christian religion also provides a competing alternative to the socio-materialist, commons, and democratic Enlightenment concept of human development within shared sovereignty.  Conservatives tell us, You’ll get change when you die, and you’ll like it. Or not.

I am interested in analyses of conservatism because I want to aid working-class, colonized, racialized, and feminized people’s understanding of how to incorporate knowledge for democratic development, and how to set boundaries on knowledge that denies working-class people’s development of their own human capacities. The problem with philosophy, social theory, and the social sciences is not that they derived from the Enlightenment effort to build human science knowledge–knowledge beyond authority and habit–but that they became infused with Antienlightenment thought, and so dissipated. Science was reduced to scientism, and conservative philosophy stepped in. This needs to be disentangled and clarified. For example, meritocratic ideology in the context of capitalism is a variant of antihuman aristocratic ideology. Meritocratic ideology’s capacity to permit human development is severely limited. There’s no need for antidemocratic social science, except as an instrumental, disposable conservative tactic.

According to McMahon’s analysis of French Catholic conservatism, these are the themes that the Ultra-Royalists‘ voluminous literature (McMahon 192, 199) bequeathed to Western thought, particularly Postmodernism (McMahon 201-202):

  • Animosity toward the Enlightenment.
  • The critique of Enlightenment as about little more than cold rationalism.
  • Philosophes were depicted as abstract speculators, and as intolerant and fanatical, a “Dry Terror” like their tyrannical “Wet Terror” offspring, the Jacobins.
  • Locating the cause of the Terror not in the clash between Enlightenment and Counterenlightenment, but as the sole responsibility of the Enlightenment (McMahon 201). Philosophes were depicted as mob fluffers.
  • A Pandora’s Box, Enlightenment caused an expansive package of related social ills: the decline of faith, Breakup of the family, Moral turpitude, Separation of church and state, Political upheaval, Tolerance, free speech, civil marriage and divorce, moral and economic laissez faire, democracy, and natural rights.
  • The Enlightenment as the sign and source of modernity’s ills: rationalism, intolerance, the Holocaust, antisemitism, totalitarianism, racism, environmental destruction, imperialism, misogyny (201-202).
  • Philosophes created both capitalist individualism and international pacifism.
  • Enlightenment is on the evil side of the world-epic drama between Christian Civilization and counter-civilization. Per Gustave Gautherot and up through Samuel Huntington et al., counter-civilization extends from previous opponents and rivals of major European imperial powers to Enlightenment to communism to Islam.
  • The Enlightenment was a “conspiracy against the social order in a clear line of descent from the philosophe bugbear of the eighteenth century through the Freemason, Jewish, liberal, and socialist pariahs of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries” (McMahon 194, citing Johannes Rogalla von Bieberstein’s analysis of conservative conspiracism).
  • Enlightenment thought was antisocial, in that it advocated for the interests and extra-religious pleasure of nonelites. The social is a steep, immobile hierarchy; thus, the “interests” of nonelites would be nested under the interests of elites. But their natural subordination means that nonelites do not have their own interests, though as Homo Vir, Passionate Man, they can be recognized as related to proper, elite humans.
  • In addition to the hierarchical social, the primacy of history and human fallibility all mean that collective action for democratic social change is not natural or possible.
  • Happiness is bestowed exclusively by submission to religious authority, particularly for the servile classes.
  • Individual rights deplete organic (True, patriarchal) community, family.
  • Restore religion to politics. Religion is identical with both morals and culture.
  • A belief in the power of the individual Mind to make human history. Some men are essentially demigods; their existence transcends the material world. The conservative conceptualization of the human is bipolar. Corresponding to the apotheosis of some men, most people are subhuman, dirtbags. As every Latin American elite knows, the people are either to be tapped (1), or ushered to their “change” (death, 0). Like an HR lady clinging to her salary and self-concept as a People Person, the church manages nonelites, human resources, through their binary states.

Extrapolating McMahon’s analysis of French Catholic conservatism, here is the weakness of conservatism in contests against rival paradigmatic communities:

  1. The conservative conception of the “mob” is too alienated to maintain a social network under the pressure of a rival. Conservatives conceive of the people as fatally dehumanized, crippled, stunted herd animals to be corralled by the fearsome, shock ‘n’ awe institution of religion. This conceptual reduction results in conservatives failing to build a strong base to their pyramid, to support them when a rival social order is organizing. It results in conservative overconfidence in religion as a social control institution. And it results in conservatives failing to recognize that rivals may rebuild the human collective action and solidarity capacities of the people, diverting those people from the conservative institutions of social control. Note: At this point in history, with the help of slavers’ racialized ideology and institutions, it looks like American conservatives have polished their “mob”-control game. Also, the Democratic Party has not been an alternative to the Republican Party–They both rest on variants of aristocratic ideology.
  2. Like other historical victors, Ultra-Royalist conservatives did not recognize the limits of their victories. In particular, Ultra-Royalists did not recognize that their pro-monarchy allies were pragmatic, not as idealist as themselves. After some democratic changes were institutionalized by the Republic, when monarchy was restored, even French pro-monarchy allies failed to care enough to work with conservatives to crush democratic institutions and culture, and install an inegalitarian utopia in their place (McMahon 192).
  3. Catholic conservatives have had their own international network, based in Italy, Germany, Spain, Portugal, Ireland, Quebec, Poland, Hungary, Martinique, and Latin America (McMahon 195). This network is not identical with France’s allies. France’s international allies, even monarchs, were not necessarily Catholic conservative. Sweden was one of France’s most steadfast allies. Its monarch used Swedish troops and took down the Holy Roman Empire.
  4. It’s probably a good temporary strategy to maintain one core principle, and otherwise be super instrumentalist, as conservatives are. But under serious pressure from rivals (not, for example, the Democratic party, or ambient liberalism), all the hypocrisy can pile up and block the view. Sometimes all the (Leo) Straussian exoteric posturing can become so obfuscatory that it loses its audience. Under the fast-changing conditions of heightened class warfare, conservatives drown out their own voice, leaving everyone to notice that they’re wearing the emperor’s new clothes.
    1. One among many examples from the Ultra-Royalists is that when the king revoked their speech privilege, they embraced freedom of speech, which they had just previously been repudiating savagely. As mounted such expedient deviations from previous, furiously-held “principles,” conservatives lost discursive power. “They glorified power, hierarchy, and deference yet were quick to break ranks when their particular interests clashed” (McMahon 191). They began to appear “incoherent.” Conservatives did not see their crowd fading until too late, because they took their exceptionalist privilege too seriously, and failed to recognize other, lesser humans as necessary adherents to their social network. Cosseted by Catholicism and other conservative traditions, conservatives can care too little what others think.
    2. However, this conservative vulnerability at the margins tends to be optimistically overgeneralized by lazy liberals. Under normal conditions, conservatives are correct that few non-comms pros care how hypocritical they are. Hence, Trump and the modern Republican Party. Unfortunately for liberal party tacticians, conservatives disintegrate not when they are hypocritical (Exceptionalism is the privilege of the boss, so exercising hypocrisy only affirms conservatism.), but only when they become incoherent. Before that happens, they have a big, familiar arsenal to unload. And it’s comfortingly encoded in all sorts of institutions, from Catholic doctrine, to Evangelical Christian doctrine, to American law.
    3. Still, conservative incoherence can happen in class warfare, because conservatives cannot publicly name their central principle, inequality, and maintain sufficient social support. Meanwhile, they enjoy themselves, getting off on surfing the risk of exposure.
  5. The religious backing, the sacralization of conservatives’ interest, inequality, encourages conservative savagery in inequality’s defense. Savagery reduces their degrees of credibility and tactical freedom when conservatives excessively, instrumentally switch tactics. (“Why are these jackasses moral authorities again?”)
  6. As well, when you’re trying to sell predatory obfuscation as “enchantment” (See McMahon 197), the savagery undercuts the brand. This is why Romanticism, attuned to the suffering of the hi-lo coalition of the marginal, is friable.
  7. Since they cannot really consolidate publicly around their fundamental platform of elevating themselves by stepping on everyone else, conservatives can be divided along secondary “principles” and clashing advantage-securing strategies, undercutting their coalition. Crucially, dividing conservatives requires previous success circulating a captivating egaliberte justice telos, as was accomplished in the Enlightenment.
    1. The French Right’s internal disintegration was caused by revolutionaries manipulating an ongoing history of conflict among the king, the nobility, and a clergy vacillating between France and the Vatican.
    2. Likewise, in Sweden, when GIVA was ready to lead the nobility slyly into British-style capitalism, the elite was unmanageably divided–including along gendered networks.  For many reasons, the nobility no longer trusted the king. Moreover, and crucially, elements of the Swedish nobility, including female aristocrats, had subscribed to some Enlightenment ideas. Elites could not coalesce; Swedish democrats were able to organize for political power instead.
    3. Legion are the modern (20th-21st c. neoliberal era) examples of how conservatives cannot be substantively divided where there is no egaliberte justice telos to capture any elites.
  8. Discursive determinism is an idealistic right-wing projection (McMahon: 200). However, discursive essentialism can also keep your enemies on life support. When conservatives narrated the Enlightenment as sin committed by individual Minds, they cast memorial statues to Enlightenment contributors. Now any CBC radio program can run an evening feature on Diderot.
  9. In short, there are plenty of ways for organized democrats to skin a conservative.
    1. The reason why the liberal parties like the US Dems fail to dominate the conservative parties in the modern era is because the liberal parties are not equipped to oppose the conservatives. This is a result of the Austrian Chamber of Commerce tacticians’ (Mises & Hayek’s) great political insight: Just remind the capitalists that they are also aristocrats, with all the predatory privileges these power-elite classes may claim, and their liberal servants will be pulled into conservatism’s wake.

However, the French conservatives were modern, used all the technology, published the discourse, helped create the Terror, and their thoughts weigh heavy on our thought today. They didn’t really lose the long game, any more than the American slavers lost.

The Enlightenment philosophers strove to build a global community seeking philosophically-informed, comparative, empirical knowledge with which to suggest, for democratic consideration, the varieties of ways that humans can live together. The Enlightenment didn’t create all the problems. Conservatives are very much with us today, doing what they need to do to us to make their utopia.

Next step: Find articles on Scholastic influence on American constitutional law developments after 1986 (Reagan’s appointment of Scalia to the Supreme Court).

Susan J. Stabile, “Catholic Legal Theory,” Journal of Catholic Legal Studies 44, no.
2 (2005): 421-432.

Stabile doesn’t lend insight into what I’m looking for– How Scholastic legal education imbues neoliberal constitutional thought in the US. She clearly mashes Catholic and Enlightenment concepts (development, metaphysical specification of the good society, positive freedom) in arguing for the importance of Catholic morality in legal formation for cultural change. Where science advances knowledge (not linearly) over time, idealism merely disguises its metaphysics with borrowed language.

In Stabile’s effort to sell the Catholic tradition as an important corrective to “secular” law and society, with a smattering of some general consensus points most people can agree with (The need for “curbing excessive individualism where that interferes with the common good” (426); the tacit importation of private privilege into Rule of Law, as it is bereft of metaphysical specification), you can still see a number of persistent issues with the Roman Catholic paradigm that make it an unsatisfactory corrective to capitalist law. After all, it’s the unsatisfactory, imperial feudal institution from whence unsatisfactory, imperial capitalist institutions developed.

According Stabile, Catholicism is all about, and introduces the following three novelty principles into American law:

1) the principle of the dignity of each individual. This dignity is guaranteed by the extent to which the individual signifies the Catholic God, is “in God’s image” in this idealist paradigm. Thus, Catholicism has traditionally supported not egaliberte, as Stabile disingenuously intimates in asserting that all humans are made in God’s image, but an allocation of dignity based on a Great Chain of Being. If humans are all in God’s image, some humans are more so, some are less so, with consequences for dignity distribution. This isn’t about recognizing difference; it’s about reproducing inequality.

Stabile specifies that human dignity in the Catholic tradition means that Catholic authority, and not life-giving women or selves in socio-material context, governs all individual decisions involving reproduction and  human life length. While life chances and life quality are governed by the allocation of rank and obligation, the supplemental Catholic algorithm determines that length of individual existences will be optimized within that governing framework. Since perinatal life is in our big-cranium mammalian species on Earth an extension of women’s lives, “dignity” requires Catholic institutional management of women.

Perhaps hinting at one of the reasons for its capitalist replacement, Catholic obligations are heavily, permanently enforced on some kinds of individuals. For Catholics, it is not a priority to enforce any collective responsibility to create conditions supporting human longevity, and the Catholic tradition is not going to expend as much effort fighting pollution, war, exploitation and expropriation as they are going to expend micromanaging the ladies. In the first place, targeting institutional and systemic threats to human longevity would require scientific knowledge, which, as we shall see, is not a kind of knowledge Catholicism recognizes. Rather, it is individuals’ (women’s) obligation to the community to make the Catholic life-length optimization algorithm work.

When did “universalist” Catholicism master the trick of smuggling sociological inequality within universalist abstractions? Long enough ago to be very swift and sure in hot-potatoing the critique upon its rivals?

Each individual has 2) obligations within a non-exclusive, mystified community. Because community must be mystified (Stabile: 427), the rank and obligations that any particular individual or group must fulfill are worrisomely underspecified in Stabile’s persuasion essay, see discussion under principle 1, human dignity, above. It must be that the allocation of rank and obligations are to be managed in part by the institution of the Roman Catholic church, both because of its monopoly on Truth and because mystified relations (community) require expert management.

Rank and obligations can also be, and have been established and allocated via economics and politics, including war. Catholicism traditionally performs a supplementary function in managing and enforcing individual obligations to the community. It seems evident that Catholicism’s rigid focus on women’s obligations to the community is overly determined by the atavistic manpower and tax revenue (marketable crop) requirements of feudal warlords, which interest and associated morality shifts somewhat under capitalist conditions.

Similarly, 3) freedom must be distributed according to Catholic “truth.” Again, Catholic authorities must be the institution required to distribute freedom across any community, which Stabile terms “Authentic Freedom,” because Catholic authorities have monopoly access to Truth.

Stabile seems to be simply suggesting legal principles which require reattaching the Roman Catholic Church, as an institution, to the state.

Throughout, Stabile’s bete noir is “secularism,” where the issues cited are clearly rooted in capitalism, eg. It is capitalism that fosters sociopathic individualism, Homo Economicus. Perhaps this conflation is motivated by the tradition of Catholic opposition to Enlightenment, as well as the venerable Catholic tradition of supplementing power elites, see the history of fascism. Without sufficient capacity to even correctly (or, acknowledging the Liberation Theology offshoot, reliably) identify a global, motivating, mobilizing, governance institution like capitalism, the fundamental institution allocating rank and obligation, Catholicism must be little help in dealing with the central social problem Stabile identifies: The widespread diminishment of human welfare, integrity, and development where the common good is dismissed, deprioritized, and distorted.

The relation between the individual and the common good is a central concern of much secular philosophy. Reducing secularism to capitalist problems obfuscates (not only Catholicism’s Aristotelian supplement but also) non-imperial, secular, non-mystifying, sociomaterialist traditions–such as informed the Enlightenment philosophes–investigating and weighing how to best permit social humans’ development, integrity, and welfare. These sociomaterialist community traditions are well known to imperial Roman Catholicism, which has long attacked them as rivals and enemies. As secularism is reduced to capitalist culture, and the varieties of sociomaterialist philosophy and praxis are excluded, then Stabile’s case for catholicizing law relies on an additional, unspoken assumption: To optimize collective and individual human life, humans need to be governed by mystification. That is an interested assumption. It also belies Catholicism’s incompatibility with Rule of Law, which telos requires transparency improvements. Stabile’s is not a good-faith argument, as suggested by her argument’s deployment of opaque, institutional-brand “truth.”

Is the Roman Catholic tradition, with its specialization in mystification, actually adept at centering the human, as Stabile claims (430), or is its real forte obfuscatory shock-and-awe population management as a supplement to warlord rule? Why don’t we ask the surviving legions of systematically-molested altar boys? At the end of her article, Stabile tries to make a relativist argument for including Catholicism in law–arguing that Catholicism’s vision of the common good is adequately specified and defended (430), for example, where Catholic rhetoric implies that simply advising maturing youth to ignore their sexuality is identical to the common good of no youth sex. In so doing, Stabile demonstrates that Catholic Truth/faith is  hopelessly mired in parochial idealism: Assuming that everyone can “know” that ignorance and denial in the mind = nonsexual behaviour in the sociomaterial world, where this is an authority “knowledge” that has been scientifically demonstrated invalid and would only be evident and reasonable to a committed dogmatist.

As well, Stabile’s closing example demonstrates that Catholic Truth prohibits (or drastically deprioritizes) curiosity, empirical investigation into the context-embedded efficacy and validity of that institution, policy, or practice (sex education or instruction in abstinence) putatively optimizing human welfare. How compatible with legal discovery is that religious commitment to dogma? On its margins, nervous Roman Catholic monks may have once unleashed the Renaissance; but Roman Catholicism’s anti-Enlightenment prohibition against expanded and normalized empirical investigation and curiosity, its prohibition against methodical (designed to deploy human capacities and adjust for human limitations), collective self-correction–science, casts in deep doubt whether the Catholic tradition can adequately specify the institutional support for human dignity, community, and freedom-to.

The Catholic tradition cannot fill in capitalist law’s holes. It can only dig them deeper, witness the modern US Supreme Court. Why should this be surprising? Capitalists to a great extent emerged from the wealth of aristocracy. Capitalist exploitation rests upon an ocean of expropriation, the source of wealth familiar to all feudalists. What the Catholic institution is designed to do is supplement expropriation with human resources management. But is the feudalist institution Catholicism a better population manager than capitalist HR ladies? It is! It’s got sturm und drang, rituals, amazing buildings, lovely candles, songs. And it’s an HR department run by guys!…which has its pluses and minuses. But resourceful capitalism has more population-management departments than corporate HR and religious institutions.

Excessively rigid, authoritarian Catholic interpretations (“truth”) of superficially-consensus humane and pro-social principles sure are old, elaborate, and opaque to most; but mystification cannot provide appreciable corrective upon existing capitalist epistemological problems impinging a collective good that permits individual human development–epistemological problems such as are evident in scientistic communities like conservative economics, which also excessively serves power elites, limits collective learning, and prohibits Kuhnian paradigmatic adjustment (Varoufakis 2011). If a tradition cannot offer improvements–observable in outcomes–in coordinating individual development and the collective good, then it’s not what’s needed to address (not “secularism”‘s shortcomings but) capitalism’s failings.

For compelling insight into how conservative Evangelical Protestantism works, see Adam Kotsko’s “The Evangelical Mind.” The important distinction is that Evangelical Protestantism violently dispenses with Christian Good Works as a framework disciplining community members. For Evangelicals, Good Works, or acts of benevolence consign non-Evangelicals to Hell. Committing evil upon people and other life outside of the Evangelical community is sanctified as proof of the individual’s hermetically-sealed, mutually-chosen relationship with the Divine. In the Evangelical view, sabotaging an atheist or bombing a Muslim neighbourhood is what demonstrates God’s favor and gets individual Evangelicals into Heaven.

Whereas Weberians once imagined Evangelical Protestantism as a path to capitalist affluence, we can now recognize Evangelical Protestantism as a framework fit for a militarized society of soldiers and guards.

Understanding this solves a mystery. I had a roommate, raised Calvinist, with a half-sister recovering from terrible self-esteem, likely due a lot to her businessman step-father’s abuse. While we were roommates for a couple of years in grad school, the half sister would travel to visit us, along with her children. To get out of the house, as a teenager the half-sister had gotten repeatedly knocked up by a criminal, drug-addict ne’er-do-well. They had joined a suburban Evangelical church. While the Calvinist-background young woman raised four tiny children, kept home, and stayed fit, her ne’er-do-well partner stole, got caught, had affairs, beat her in front of the children, beat the children, and continually relapsed into very hard drugs. Through it, their church supported her partner, the young man. When, after many years, the young woman finally drew a line– her family had been too beseiged, she was separating from the thug, the church and its congregation shunned…the young woman and her children.

I couldn’t understand it at the time; but that’s because I didn’t understand Evangelical Protestantism. Likely, the young woman, raised Calvinist (a fairly f’d-up religion itself, see Weber), didn’t adequately understand contemporary Evangelical Protestantism either. In the Evangelical view, the young man was repeatedly proving his close relationship with God. By laboring diligently to create a non-traumatizing household life, including for the children, the young woman was, in the Evangelical faith, only demonstrating that she was hell-bound. The Evangelical Church sided with its hand-grenade “God,” such as it is.

 

References

 

Varoufakis, Yanis. 2011. “Chapter 9. A Most Peculiar Failure: The curious mechanism by which neoclassicism’s theoretical failures have been reinforcing its dominance since 1950,” pp. in Modern Political Economics.

 

 

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s