The Concept of Progress

The concept of progress, i.e., an improvement or completion (in modern jargon, a rationalization) became dominant in the eighteenth century, in an age of humanitarian-moral belief. Accordingly, progress meant above all progress in culture, self-determination, and education: moral perfection. In an age of economic or technical thinking, it is self-evident that progress is economic or technical progress. To the extent that anyone is still interested in humanitarian-moral progress, it appears as a byproduct of economic progress. If a domain of thought becomes central, then the problems of other domains are solved in terms of the central domain – they are considered secondary problems, whose solution follows as a matter of course only if the problems of the central domain are solved.

– Carl Schmitt, The Concept of the Political 

In an unintentional manner, Schmitt summarizes well not just the concept of progress generally, but — unintentionally — the ethos of think-tanks such as The Mises Institute, The Cato Institute, and even the Catholic-backed Acton Institute. It is the ethos of the so-called “Washington Consensus” that emerged after 1989, the consensus which gave us the World Trade Organization, NAFTA, and a global investment regime that erodes national sovereignty in the name of economic improvement. “Spread the wealth” via “free trade” and everything will fall into place: peace, security, stability, “human rights,” etc. How quickly has that dream, that myth, unraveled in the wake of the terrible realization that human souls cannot be placated with “stuff” and a life infused with meaning, even demonic meaning, has more power to move mountains than the wealth of every global elite combined.

Critical and Unclear

Critical theory is a fun little tool that will get you published, maybe even laid on a college campus, but not much else. Pick whatever you wish off the shelves of any Left-leaning library and run with it. If you should be endowed with better-than-average literary chops, you might even be able to secure tenure, or the next best thing: a well-trafficked web-log. Although it stands to reason that there have been critical theorists over the past century who genuinely believed that their largely masturbatory pet projects were actually in the service of “human liberation” (whatever that means), the harsh reality is that most of what emerged from, and following, the so-called “Frankfurt School” remains a niche academic interest for graduate students who don’t really understand life and undergraduates who understand neither life nor the theories that ostensibly elucidate it. Rather, under the critical gaze, all of life is reduced to a series of power struggles, deceptions, interpersonal conflicts, and epistemological anarchy and communication becomes little more than an empty exchange of jargon-filled platitudes parading as insights.

Had I, more than a decade ago upon leaving undergrad, thought that I would still be running across the critical-theory crowd, I might have been inclined to go live in a shack in Montana. It had been my assumption that children’s things would no longer be relevant once I entered the “real world,” and for a time my “real world” was legal academia as both a student and faculty fellow. Sure, legal studies, like most disciplines at one time or another, flirted with critical theory, but by the time I was hard at study that movement had been suffocated by the equally noxious “Law & Economics” movement (one, which I am sorry to say, I actually got behind). Penning law-review pieces that quoted Marx, Horkheimer, Barthes, Habermas, etc. stopped being “edgy” 25 years ago. Sure, for obvious reasons there was still room for some Foucault, but who today wants to admit they spend serious time with the likes of Catharine McKinnon, Duncan Kennedy, and Roberto Unger?

I write this despite the fact several acquaintances of mine believe that what we need now more than ever is a refresher on critical theory, specifically its roots and the social movements some believe it inspired. I imagine this sentiment has emerged out of a general frustration with the contemporary Left, specifically the contemporary young Left and its obsession with the pettiest form of identity politics and melodramatic declarations of oppression. Although less visible, and probably not front-and-center in the mind of any Leftist, is the small but apparently growing body of Christian Leftists who, in an often confused and contradictory manner, adopt what they think is a Leftist posture in order to make themselves appear relevant in a cultural milieu that really has no interest whatsoever in what “Jesus Kids” have to say about poverty, racism, war, and so forth. Might it not be possible, some hope, for the Left to be reinvigorated by a return to a more serious time, a period when critically engaging the world and its power structures meant more than sending out Tweets and discussing “polity” with your fellow white, Ivy League graduates?

Maybe, but it seems to me that a return to seriousness is a return to the days when men would kiss their wives, hug their children, and take to the streets, mountainsides, or forests with knives, guns, and Molotov cocktails to not simply “make a point” but literally take apart the machinery of their misery. Not that I endorse such a course of action, mind you, at least not for all of the purposes and interests that often motivated such otherwise well-meaning men, but there is a great deal to be said for having, as they say, “skin in the game.” For nearly a century, a good number of anarchists, communists, and socialists of all shapes and sizes had a great deal of “skin in the game”; if you don’t believe me, just spend a bit of time perusing the history of Western Europe and the United States from the 19th Century onward. Tales of government-backed manipulation, maiming, and murder—all in the name of upholding the fruits of liberalism—fill the history books or, rather, ought to. Actually, what fills the history books even to this day is one long lie about the “progress” of human history and our arrival at its “absolute moment,” an era of unfettered access to porn, booze, and reality television.

During long stretches of highway driving, or even in just a quiet moment of personal reflection taken while in line to buy cigarettes, I have found myself wondering that if/when the “revolution” comes, who will be lined up against a wall and shot first: Me or the coffee-shop commie kid? I jest. There is no revolution coming, at least not from the Left. The steady erosion of life—its meaning and transcendence—that is and has always been part of the liberal project will likely continue unabated during my sojourn on this earth. To hope for anything else seems unreasonable, and yet it is terrifically easy to imagine three or four moves on the global chessboard that could quickly turn the relative passivity of Western (post)modern existence into a bloodbath. Perhaps that’s already happening and for reasons which are still unclear to me, I don’t want to see it.

If He Is Not Your King…

Over the course of the past few months I have been going in chronological order through the archived sermons of Fr. Patrick Reardon over at Ancient Faith Radio (AFR). The archive, which dates back over a decade, may be the most impressive audio collection of Eastern Orthodox homilies in existence. For though some have not always seen eye-to-eye with Reardon on certain subjects (e.g. the nature of Orthodox theology, liturgics, the role of the Old Testament in the life of the Church, sexual ethics, etc.), no serious person can deny that Reardon is one of the most learned Orthodox churchmen in the West and maybe the most Scripturally sound Eastern cleric in the world.

In a brief 2005 homily, simply entitled “Melchizedek,” Fr. Patrick makes the point that just as Melchizedek’s kingship cannot be separated from his priesthood, neither can Christ’s. And if we, as Christians, will not have the Lord Jesus as our king, neither can we have him as our priest. This is an unsettling lesson for modern man, being that we are so accustomed to rejecting both the need for a mediator and authority. Today, even those of us (Orthodox and Catholic) who are willing to accept the idea of a mediator tend to do so on our own terms; that is, in a largely private and circumscribed manner. Is it any wonder then that we see this play out as well with regard to Christ’s kingship? In the privacy of our homes and the silence of the pew, we may pay private homage to Christ the King, but not in public. In public we live as the world expects. Perhaps we try to be “nicer” than others, or take the Lord’s name in vain a tad bit less, but that is not enough. God does not call men to love and worship Him on their own terms; He calls us to total obedience, even unto death. How quickly we forget that.

If we live our lives as Christians, that is, in obedience to God, we will be rejected by the world. We will not “get along,” either in the workplace or at school or even among friends. This is a a truth that Reardon stresses — a truth most of us would rather not be reminded of. Look today at how Christians, specifically Catholics, are so eager to adopt the garments of capitalism or communism in order to win worldly approval and benefits while paying no mind to the divine teachings entrusted to the Church. See how Catholics chase after secular political leaders to be their kings or queens without paying any mind to Christ. We reject His Kingship and still believe we are entitled to his priesthood. We want His Grace, but not His Law. In the end, we love to be in the world and long to be of it.

2016 Presidential Election

While I harbor no illusions that Opus Publicum, a modest personal web-log authored solely by yours truly, has the power to influence that ghastly spectacle known as the 2016 United States Presidential Race, I wish to make clear that on Tuesday, November 8 I will be writing-in Michael Maturen and Juan Muñoz of the American Solidarity Party (ASP) for the Presidential and Vice-Presidential offices.

This decision is not an endorsement of the ASP as a whole. Although I have written favorably about its platform before, I believe the ASP has significant work left to do, particularly at the national level. However, I cannot in good conscience vote for either Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump. Additionally, I have come to find that many of the other third-party choices available this year are equally unpalatable. It has taken many months of reading, reflection, and internal debate for me to make this choice, and as many know, my initial instinct was to refrain from voting altogether. (This is a position I have defended before.) While I will not begrudge a single soul for opting to conscientiously refrain from participating in our woefully corrupt political system, I believe the time has come for Catholics in particular to look for ways to make the voice of the Church heard once again, even if it must start out as a faint whisper.

To my fellow Catholics, particularly those who do not agree with me, all I can say is please vote your conscience on Tuesday as informed by the authentic teachings of the Catholic Church and her doctrinally sound theological tradition. If you are uncertain about what that means, let me suggest you click over to The Josias and give careful attention to the recent article entitled “Catholics and the Ethics of Voting.”

If possible, make a point to attend Mass tomorrow and implore Almighty God to have mercy upon the United States during this tumultuous period in her relatively brief history. Spend some time with our Eucharistic King in the Tabernacle and find a way to do some small penance for the innumerable officially sanctioned sins committed throughout this country every single day. And above all, do not give into fear. Do not despair, but recall instead one of the opening petitions of the Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom and pray fervently for the peace that can only come from Above and for the salvation of our souls. Господи Помилуй.