Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Morris Berman at Clark University - it is consummated.

There is a manner in which Christ's last words from the cross in John's gospel can be interpreted as  symbolizing not only the completion of the act of atonement, but indeed the closure of one epoch and beginning of another. The ruler of the world is cast out and the Son is glorified. The world, for the author of the Gospel of John, has changed. For Morris Berman, the reign of capital and the rule of modernity have begun to break and the precipitous economic decline of the United States and Europe mark the beginning of an irreversible transition to a new historical epoch.

The notion of the consummation of an age brings with it a certain amount of dread. The old order with which we are familiar, the construct by which we have encoded our lives with meaning and purpose, threatens to collapse. When ashes lay scattered and the soot dissipates from the air, an unknown scape lay in front of us, even if only a reflection of our psyche now bereft of meaning and left with the mammoth task of  re-codifying existence.

The consummation of an age has happened in history; epochal change has brought one world to birth and another to dissolution. Comparatively few are those who live through such times. According to Morris Berman, radical social historian extraordinaire, we are living amid such change. Berman's basic thesis states that capitalism is undergoing its collapse and with it coincides the end of modernity or, as Romano Gaurdini famously titled it in his influential work in 1932, the end of the modern world. Capitalism cannot continue, however, rather than undergoing a self-initiated change, the United States will persist with the capitalist model until the model is exhausted. The crash of 2008 will not be the last and the stagnate economy will not likely return to form as we reach limits of consumption. Many factors will facilitate the collapse: the persistence of financial practices that facilitated the crash of 2008, the inevitability of peak oil, misguided war ventures, and the continued consolidation of wealth to name a few. Capitalism, having been left unchecked and becoming the dominant financial model across the globe, collapses and brings the modern world with it. It is, according to Berman, the break in the arc of capitalism, the death throes of declining age and the birth pangs of another, the total shifting of paradigms. The financial pitfall undergone in the global economy has no tenable exit as the socio-economic system declines steadily towards dissolution prior to redefinition.

Berman's model is indeed, depending upon one's perspective, the most pessimistic or optimistic casting of the future (a process he believes will be complete by 2100, the first year after the modern world). Depending upon one's perspective, he notes, one has either the fortune or misfortune to live through such epochal change, though for many the immediate experience is one of internal anxiety, crushing necessity, and hopelessness as one struggles to retain prescribed life patterns within a society in which they are increasingly obsolete.

Berman's thesis is an example of talking about "great ideas," ideas which are colossal in scope. It is admittedly impossible to fully wrap one's mind around the notion of epochal change, that in forty years capitalism and capitalist society will no longer exist and that be the beginning of the next century society will have as much in common with our own as we do the medievals. Nevertheless, Berman sticks by this and he offers some compelling proofs of his diagnosis.

Is Berman correct? This is another matter entirely. Since at least Gaurdini's work, if not before, observers had commented the the rise of the mass production of financial capital signaled the decline of capitalism if not the modern world as whole due to forces effecting the culture as whole. Berman is not, therefore, alone in his analysis. Even this election cycle has played upon theme to some extent, or, at the very least, the theme of transition. Republicans offer the possibility of restoring a bygone era of the American economy while Democrats pursue the re-engineering of society believing the past to be irretrievable. In some sense, then, I think Berman is correct in his estimation that people have begun to sense that transition is taking place, though it is a transition to something entirely unknown.

There are certain cultural indicators that would make one intuitively feel Berman is on to something in his analysis. All economic indicators suggest upward mobility has come to an end in American society, intimating an end to the economic promise of capitalism and in turn the pragmatic cessation of one of modernism's philosophical presuppositions. There is also, as Berman himself noted, the absurdity of the "bottom 90%." Fiscal capital is in a period of being generated among and coalesced into a limited percentage of economic participants and creating striking examples of disproportionate earnings. The consolation of wealth increasingly occurs through practices which violate the common ethical presuppositions of the Western world, democratic-capitalist societies in particular.

The above circumstances, according to Berman, occasion the rise of social protest movements, most recently seen in Occupy Wallstreet. In Berman's analysis, Occupy Wallstreet is a failure and had little hope of succeeding for two reasons. First, the movement lacked the political structure and necessary hierarchy to become a component of the political process, eventually leading to social and economic reform. Second, Occupy Wallstreet's expressed goal looks to do little more than change the window dressing of the system. But as much as we should expect future economic crashes in our lifetime, we should also expect future protest movements; the social conditions are ripe, in Berman's estimation, for continued future unrest.

Berman compares the magnitude of the change he sees encroaching upon us as comparable to the collapse of the Roman Empire in the West and the formation of the Medieval world. Berman looks to the example of the ancient Monastic communities as exemplars for how culture, learning and indeed civilization would survive the transition of epochs. The ancient monasteries were the repository of learning during and after the collapse of Rome and preserved much of classical culture, as well as serve as the focal point of economic activity for the community. IF we are truly heading for the dissolution of modernity as Berman prognosticates, then it is necessary to find communities with such intention and integrity to preserve our culture into the new historical cycle. Berman does not, and I think correctly so, assume that today's Christian monastic communities would once again fulfill that role: many are either uncultured or are themselves too dependent upon modernity themselves. Thus, the challenge is to find communities with the ancient monastic ethos.

The scenario Berman outlined is, of course, a big IF; I know of historical examples of persons who successfully prognosticated epochal change. Although, as mentioned, Berman is not the only person to come to this conclusion and the history of intellectual thought strongly implies that the prognostications of the end of an age are not solely conditioned by today's economic circumstances. As a theologian, one cannot help but try to identify the significance for religion in such a transition. Berman's scenario implies a socio-economic tumult in which everything we know if potentially risked with dissolution. The dissolution of the Roman Empire brought with it the dissolution of the Roman religious world. Christianity, however, survived into the medieval period, a period defined by Christianity. Modernity revolted against the Medieval Christian world, although Christianity nevertheless transitioned into the modern world, although not without change. Protestantism was the Christianity produced by modernity. Roman Catholicism largely resisted modernity, although the last fifty years has seen an attempt to come to grips with modernity's philosophical and sociological outlook. IF Berman is correct, religion will undergo another transformation. New religions, already prevalent in the last one hundred years, will continue to increase as humanity seeks spiritual significance to its new circumstance.

What then of Christianity? Protestantism, though foundationally produced by modernity, has the benefit of no central governing body and the ability to adapt quickly. To the degree that a particular form of Protestantism is wedded to modernity is the degree to which it would, hypothetically, risk extinction. Catholicism finds itself in a more complicated place. The Roman Church resisted modernity for most of the modern epoch but has, in the last fifty years, sought to come to terms with it. This has brought both benefit and loss to the Roman Church. I will cite to examples with which I am quite familiar. Pius XII may well be recognized as the first pontiff to fully integrate modernity into Roman Catholicism. Divino Afflantu set out the program of Biblical Studies for the Roman Church. Pius XII fully embraced the historical critical method and urged the biblical books to be interpreted according to their genre and authorial intent. The Roman Church has, as a result, produced an impressive stream of biblical scholars and commentators. Currently, the some of the finest vernacular editions of the bible stem from Catholic biblical scholars. There is no attempt to read Catholic or even Christian doctrine into the biblical text. The text is often taken on its own terms and context. This has been, in my estimation, an example of the benefit of modernity to the Catholic Church. Conversely, Catholic Social Teaching has been transformed by modernity. Whereas the trajectory of CST from Leo XIII to Pius XI was critical of all prevailing political and economic systems, reaching its peak with Pius XI's advocacy to create an alternative to capitalism and communism, subsequent Catholic Social Teaching has largely sought to for the capitalist system - with no results, actually. For the Roman Church, an epochal transition necessitates a close review of its own tradition to see what, if anything, can be transitioned into whatever new epoch lurks along the horizon.

Of course, all of this is a big IF, regardless of the certainty with which Berman talks about it. Nevertheless, the challenge of a theologian is read how shifts in prevailing paradigms would necessarily change the theological and religious landscape. Berman's scenario, featuring a healthy dose of financial catastrophe and social unrest, has its apocalyptic overtones but, being based on speculation as it is, there is no certainty. There are, however, a variety of social currents in which Christianity finds itself, all vying for some measure of influence. Perhaps, then, Berman is correct and this explains, in part, the numerous indications of intellectual fragmentation in Roman Catholicism - our current world is exhausted and things have begun the process of dissolution. Although, I tend to aver from Berman's scenario. True, everything, including capitalism and modernity in general will come to a conclusion - history seems to dictate that all cycles eventually come to an end. Yet, I myself suspect Elliot may be closer to the truth regarding the eventual end of the modern world, "not with a bang, but with a whimper." Nevertheless, Berman's proposal is compelling, if not unsettling. All things must come to an end, so the saying goes. Of course, it's one thing to say it, another thing entirely to entertain the thought one is living through the end of everything one knows.