capitalism, poverty

Langone, Wealth, Poverty

So Ken Langone, the billionaire founder of Home Depot and self-appointed speaker for other rich donors, is citing an anonymous donor who claims Pope Francis is alienating the rich by his talk about income disparity, the poor, and heres the kicker, that money isolates the rich from feeling compassion for the poor. Therefore, Langone is publicly noting the threat of an embargo on donations to the Catholic church (specifically concerning the restoration of St. Patricks cathedral, but does not appear limited to St. Patricks). Unfortunately Langone and others simply say that Francis was thinking about Argentina, not the US, and was mistranslated. Of course the embargo and redirection is just making Francis’s point; the depths and breadth of poverty in the US are not seen from the heights of a condo in a tower in Manhattan’s midtown. Langone and other donors, however, are not just proving the accuracy of Francis’s analysis but also Scripture. One should not forget that it is the riches of the rich man that make it difficult––as the camel through the eye of the needle––to enter the kingdom of God. So often we simply stop at the love of money as the root of many sins, but forget that wealth is still more subtle and dangerous. Wealth alienates (*cough*white flight*cough*), and capitalist wealth doubly so. But alienation sets us in a fundamental opposition to the interconnectedness of trinitarian life. Historically the Catholic church and many other denominations have often been guilty of alienation and the love of money. Pope Francis, like his name sake, represents the hope of renewal that also occurs in the history of Christianity: work to live with the poor, like Jesus; do not live apart from the poor.

biopolitics, capitalism, Foucault, Hegel, political theology, socialism, voyeurism

A Future Project for Political Theology

A problem with US pragmatism, especially US jurisprudence: changing the commodity form (e.g. vhs or cassette to digital or in this case, landline to wireless) somehow means the ‘rights’ of a previous form, like copyright or consumer ownerships, has to be reinstated in the new content form (e.g the Digital Millennium Copyright Act) because the previous rights do not seem to entirely transfer automatically.

This vision of newness without continuity–newness as sheer autonomy in order to be authentically new–stays until ‘unfortunately conquered’ by an old but equally large vision (like different types of the public good: the common good or its perversion called the greater good). This seems to be another, albeit apocalyptic, articulation of the old, conflicted division in liberalism of property vs. equality: property is ‘free’ until re-imagined as a communal good because all own themselves equally. Considering this, even if one could make a law establishing a more direct link between different forms such that the re-imagining is never even an issue, I am suspicious that US pragmatism would thoroughly resist the link.

I also wonder, then, if the real question posed to the globe isn’t the red herring of capitalism vs. socialism, but between a pragmatist neo-liberalism (with the illusionary choice to be surveilled) or a fused capitalist and state absolutism like that articulated by Hegel (or a softer version called liberal communitarianism) now wedded with obligatory and invasive surveillance, a la the NSA. The point is, whichever variation or combination of the two options that will be the new political economy, it will be its own mode of voyeuristic absolutism.

And if anything is contrary to such new ‘political bonds,’ it will be a terrorist or spy, or both. We see the beginning of this in the conviction of Plowshare activists as terrorists and the US has charged Edward Snowden with variations of espionage: “theft of government property, unauthorised communication of national defence [sic] information and wilful communication of classified communications intelligence.” This re-defined reality is not the beginning of the eschaton as dispensationalists and conservative US evangelicals tend to proclaim–one does not even opt into a ‘beast mark’ here–but rather, this is a furthering of the attempt to ‘end’ history by controlling humanity’s telos via a thoroughgoing biopolitics made possible by this near-total voyeurism.

Theology will probably respond with “Maranatha!”, critical Orwellian appeals, or ‘super sizing’ Foucault’s analysis of the panopticon, but we need a better response. I suspect part of the future task of political theology will lie in confronting voyeuristic absolutism because it will be part of the unifying and protective force of an even more static classism that, in new and old ways, will continue to oppose the theopolitics of the gospel option.

capitalism, education

Forget TED, or Why Capitalist Education Blows: I Think I’ve Finally Found an Interesting Thing about TED, but They’re too Elitist to Verify It

The TED talks redefine the terms useless, enabling, and self-important in ways I didn’t think possible. I can’t stand them — all too often they’re about verbal prowess for a popular audience masquerading as sophisticated, orignal thought.

But just the other day at TEDGlobal 2011, Alain de Botton apparently uttered these words:

A sermon wants to change your life and a lecture wants to give you a bit of information. I think we need to go back to that tradition of sermon in education.

Consider my curiosity piqued. Finally. I’ve watched more than a few videos of speakers that have reputable positions and published interesting, ground-breaking projects, but their TED talks go to the absolute lowest common denominator. What is this, the University of Phoenix? Is this how the elites pay for an education subject to economic forces without much disguise?

What is interesting about the quote? After all Botton’s quote is problematic insofar as it seems to assume education today doesn’t already seek to change, or convert, and continue to habituate the person. In point of fact it does. Look at where the money contributions come from and what they fund. Now look at how Universities are educating their client-consumers (no longer pupils) for the job market. The notion of the liberal arts education is more-or-less already gone. Education is not as neutral as Botton makes it out to be.

Nevertheless, Botton is potentially hitting on something interesting — discipleship — and trying to recover it.

So, while there might finally be something worth pursuing from the TED talks… I can’t because they charge so much. $500 for a webcast subscription to your conference that is frankly more miss than hit? Screw you. And this betrays the point of TED to begin with: the elites are the ones with the most scratch, and therefore beholden to important, cutting-edge knowledge without rubbing shoulders with the unwanted plebeians, who, lucky them, can watch the video clips years after the fact or fad is passed. Indeed the conferences reinforce this class warfare, and not much else besides their ego, through the format of a kind of secret gnosis: sometimes the rich will get together to watch enthralling presentations, often without substance, that reinforces their elitism under the guise of paying a lot of money to weed out the unpromising (read, the monetarily ‘unsuccessful’) so as not to taint the exclusive brilliance of the speakers and audience. In short, a kindergarten version of an academic conference, but with an undue, pretentious air.

And don’t even get me started on the underlying dynamic of progress. I all but named the class warfare noted above as a social darwinism, but there is also a simplistic narrative of technological and cultural progress that underwrites the elitism: we’re so awesome because we can get enlightened speakers and technological wizards to comfort the rich with platitudes only found at a futurist exhibit in a world fair.

I am going to find the person who should have been cited for Botton’s talk. Forget TED. It is largely a very simple introduction to hubris.

capitalism, method, value

A Thought on Importance, Nexus, and Political Theology

The idea of how we determine importance is a curious question. In a world where importance is determined by value/worth under the capitalist paradigm of de-valuing and re-valuing unrelated to the thing itself, the question of what is an important topic or question is a tricky endeavor, if not problematic. Indeed one should be wary of letting the capitalist logic over determines theological exploration — an idolatrous move in point of fact, partly because it rejects the worth of a thing so the human may play divinity and partly because worth is tied up with truth. Often this capitalist logic parades as the test of relevance. If something is not made obviously relevant under the status quo’s paradigm, it is not worth pursuing or maintaining: “Is this relevant?” is more or less shorthand for “This position of yours does not meet ‘my’ criteria of relevance that determines the importance of this position of yours, so why would you even consider this position?”

Now, this does not mean that relevance is to be simply dismissed if it is a notion concerned with how a theological position interacts with other positions. Interaction is of course important, but at this point the word that describes the issue better is “fittingness” and that places us in the realm of aesthetics rather than a narrow, mechanistic understanding of truth.

The difficulty for myself is that political theology seems to be the quest for relevance, much like social ethics has often been even at its best. But I argue that political theology is not. Political theology at its best, as I understand it, is about chasing the political import of the deep Christian beliefs (political here is more in the sense of polis, as opposed to political in the conventional sense). This is different than relevance in my understanding because the Christian belief and life is not reduced to the question “What is our politics?” as if ethics is the thick part of Christian life. Instead the question is: “Christian belief and life does what? And it engages other communities how?” For those worried, as an interesting test case, I believe this would allow orthopraxy in the way Gutiérrez has put it, rather than reject orthopraxy. Although I’m not sure it would reject orthodoxy in lieu of orthopraxy as some liberation theologians have. The point is here that the description of political theology is about belief, community, and action in such a way that does not instrumentalize belief or community for action in conventionally political stripe, while at the same time recognizing that there is a politics because the Christian life is a thick life grounded in belief, community, and action that interacts with other communities.

This then is a theology (and perhaps a method of sorts) obsessed with nexuses. ‘Nexus’ here is used rather plainly: the nexus is a confluence — like a major intersection of multiple streets or where multiple theological circles on a ven diagram overlap. I see the description of nexus thus: a more interesting and helpful theologian sits in a place where much — place and time, who they interact with, what discussions they’re engaged with, traditions they draw from, etc. — runs through him or her like streets or an intersection. In other words, they’re positioned well, and often this is outside of their control. While a ven diagram perhaps shows better how layering of topics that color and push each other when they’re seen together, like how creation, incarnation, the body of Christ, eschatology, and revelation are major themes for the resurgence in apocalyptic as a category in the last century. But the point here is the interplay at of multiple thoughts, topics, definitions, theologians, etc. at a particular spot in context, which of course often includes connections to other nexuses.

The place of nexus is admittedly privileged — it is the place where multiple layers come into contact and show how they work together, resonate with each other, maintain each other in tension, or fall apart from conflict. I do think this is an interestingly fruitful way of going about studying dynamics and positions. One could say that this is more or less descriptive, and that there isn’t much new to it. In one way this would be correct. After all, we come back to the same topics and questions over and over again — some we cannot get away from not matter how hard we try — and thereby see them as important. Nature and grace anyone? But these perennial questions are important not simply because they’re often dividing lines, but also because they’re nexuses — they’re points where much comes together. The same goes for complex space where things like a community’s constitution/identity/formative memories, boundaries set by communities, how communities interact, etc. where community identities live in conflict, tension, or harmony. There is a reason why religion and public schools is such an important discussion for political science in the US (freedom of religion; no governmental establishment of a church; the delicate, unformed nature of a child; etc. all intersect in the question of how to do public education).

In this focus on nexus, the point is that the truth is recognized and wrestled with not because we determined it so, but because if we take the Christian life to be true — particularly in the nexuses where God and humanity touch — then nexuses are instances of Christians pursuing faithful living.


The Truly Capitalist Belief of Julian Assange

Unless you’ve been hiding under a rock, you probably know about Wikileaks recent publishing of American government secret communications. You may also know about Julian Assange’s interview with Fobes where he prophesied an early 2011 Wikileaks broadside barrage aimed at the banking sector as a whole and one specific US Bank in particular. The transcript is here:

What you may have missed is why Assange, as head of Wikileaks, is doing this. In the interview Assange shows his strong belief in a free market — calling himself a market libertarian (Adam Smith-Milton Friedman kind of economics one would suspect) — and the virtue, especially humility and honesty to the market, necessary for entrepreneurial capitalism.

While reading the interview, I found that this simply reinforced the analysis and critique of Franz Hinkelammert’s “The Economic Roots of Idolatry: Entrepreneurial Metaphysics” in The Idols of Death and the God of Life: A Theology, edited by edited by Pablo Richard.

On page 7 of Andy Greenberg’s blog at Forbes, in the post titled “WikiLeaks’ Julian Assange Wants To Spill Your Corporate Secrets,” Greenberg sums up Assange well:

He also wants to clear up a misunderstanding. Despite his revolutionary reputation, he’s not antibusiness. He bristles at the media’s focus on his teenage years as a computer hacker who broke into dozens of systems, from the Department of Defense to Nortel, and was eventually convicted on 25 charges of computer fraud and fined thousands of dollars.

Instead, he prefers to think of himself as an entrepreneur. He tells the story of a free-speech-focused Internet service provider he cofounded in 1993, known as Suburbia. It was, to hear him tell it, the blueprint for WikiLeaks—in one instance, when the Church of Scientology demanded to know who had posted antichurch information on one site, he refused to help. (“He has titanium balls,” says David Gerard, that site’s creator.) “I saw it early on, without realizing it: potentiating people to reveal their information, creating a conduit,” Assange says. “Without having any other robust publisher in the market, people came to us.”

Leaks merely lubricate the free market, he says, settling into the couch and clearly enjoying giving me a lecture on economics. (Later, as a 45-minute interview pushes into two hours, he ignores his handler, who keeps urging him to leave for his next appointment.) He cites the example of the Chinese Sanlu Group, whose milk powder contained toxic melamine in 2008. While poisoning its customers, Sanlu also gained an advantage over competitors and might have forced more of them to taint their products, too, or go bankrupt—if Sanlu hadn’t been exposed in the Chinese press. “In the struggle between open and honest companies and dishonest and closed companies, we’re creating a tremendous reputational tax on the unethical companies,” he says.

capitalism, faith, liberation, quote

Idolatry, Capitalism, and Liberation

It is no accident that today the centrality and importance of the problem of idolatry have been discovered in Latin America. Idolatry is part of our deepest experience when we live, express, and communicate our faith in the God of Jesus Christ, in the present situation of extreme oppression on our continent. We live in a profoundly idolatrous world–economically, socially, politically, culturo-ideologically, and religiously. We live crushed under the idols of an oppressive and unjust system. To live the demands of faith in this context is not simply a ‘pious’ or personal act; it necessarily entails a radical confrontation with that system. Idolatry is a question of politics and a question of faith. If capitalism were atheistic, it is possible that our faith would not have this subversive strength within a practice of political liberation. But capitalism is idolatrous rather than atheistic, which poses a political and theological problem at the same time, especially within the context of Latin American capitalism.

The biblical message against idolatry reaches us very directly and deeply. It is a message that interprets our reality with no major exegetical complications. However, today we are living through a new situation, one that did not exist in biblical times, making this anti-idolatry proclamation even more pressing and radical. This new reality is the praxis of liberation, with all its political, organic, and theoretical complexities. In biblical times, the possibility of a radical and conscious transformation of the economic and political structure of an idolatrous system did not yet exist. Today the possibility exists.

Christians who adopt the praxis of liberation also adopt the anti-idolatry proclamation of the Bible within a different historical context. This is not only a reinterpretation within a ‘hermeneutical circle’ (an expression we should eliminate), but rather a ‘hermeneutical leap’ into a new historical situation. In this new situation, faith and the revelation of God in history are more critical and radical than they were in biblical times.

Pablo Richard, “Biblical Theology of Confrontation with Idols” in The Idols of Death and the God of Life: A Theology, 24. Edited by Pablo Richard.