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The Four Fundamentalisms and the Threat to Sustainable Democracy (Part 1/2)

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The most important words anyone said to me in the weeks immediately after September 11, 2001, came from my friend James Koplin.

While acknowledging the significance of that day, he said, simply: “I was in a profound state of grief about the world before 9/11, and nothing that happened on that day has significantly changed what the world looks like to me.”

Because Jim is a bit older and considerably smarter than I, it took me some time to catch up to him, but eventually I recognized his insight.

He was warning me that even we lefties - trained to keep an eye on systems and structures of power rather than obsessing about individual politicians and single events - were missing the point if we accepted the conventional wisdom that 9/11 “changed everything,” as the saying went then.

He was right, and today I want to talk about four fundamentalisms loose in the world and the long-term crisis to which they point.
Before we head there, a note on the short-term crisis: I have been involved in U.S. organising against the so-called “war on terror,” which has provided cover for the attempts to expand and deepen U.S. control over the strategically crucial resources of Central Asia and the Middle East, part of a global strategy that the Bush administration openly acknowledges is aimed at unchallengeable U.S domination of the world.

For U.S. planners, that “world” includes not only the land and seas - and, of course, the resources beneath them - but space above as well.

It is our world to arrange and dispose of as they see fit, in support of our “blessed lifestyle.” Other nations can have a place in that world as long as they are willing to assume the role that the United States determines appropriate. The vision of U.S. policymakers is of a world very ordered, by them.

This description of U.S. policy is no caricature. Anyone who doubts my summary can simply read the National Security Strategy document released in 2002 http://www.whitehouse.gov/nsc/nss/2002/ and the 2006 update http://www.whitehouse.gov/nsc/nss/2006/ , and review post-World War II U.S. history http://www.zmag.org/CrisesCurEvts/interventions.htm .

Read and review, but only if you don’t mind waking up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat of fear. But as scary as these paranoid, power-mad policymakers’ delusions may be, Jim was talking about a feeling beyond that fear - a grief that is much broader and goes much deeper.

Opposing the war-of-the-moment - and going beyond that to challenge the whole imperial project - is important. But also important is the work of thinking through the nature of the larger forces that leave us in this grief-stricken position.

We need to go beyond Bush. We should recognize the seriousness of the threat that this particular gang of thieves and thugs poses and resist their policies, but not mistake them for the core of the problem.

One way to come to terms with these forces is to understand the United States as a society in the grip of four fundamentalisms. In ascending order of threat, I identify these fundamentalisms as religious, national, economic, and technological.

All share some similar characteristics, while each poses a particular threat to sustainable democracy and sustainable life on the planet. Each needs separate analysis and strategies for resistance.

Let’s start by defining fundamentalism.
The term has a specific meaning in Protestant history (an early 20th century movement to promote “The Fundamentals”), but I want to use it in a more general fashion to describe any intellectual/political/theological position that asserts an absolute certainty in the truth and/or righteousness of a belief system.

Such fundamentalism leads to an inclination to want to marginalise, or in some cases eliminate, alternative ways to understand and organize the world

After all, what’s the point of engaging in honest dialogue with those who believe in heretical systems that are so clearly wrong or even evil?

In this sense, fundamentalism is an extreme form of hubris, a delusional overconfidence not only in one’s beliefs but in the ability of humans to know much of anything definitively.

In the way I use the term, fundamentalism isn’t unique to religious people but is instead a feature of a certain approach to the world, rooted in the mistaking of very limited knowledge for wisdom.

The antidote to fundamentalism is humility, that recognition of just how contingent our knowledge about the world is.

We need to adopt what sustainable agriculture researcher Wes Jackson calls “an ignorance-based worldview,” http://www.landinstitute.org/vnews/display.v/ART/2004/10/03/42c0db19e37f4 an approach to world that acknowledges that what we don’t know dwarfs what we do know about a complex world.

Acknowledging our basic ignorance does not mean we should revel in stupidity, but rather should spur us to recognize that we have an obligation to act intelligently on the basis not only of what we know but what we don’t know.

When properly understood, I think such humility is implicit in traditional/indigenous systems and also the key lesson to be taken from the Enlightenment and modern science (a contentious claim, perhaps, given the way in which modern science tends to overreach).

The Enlightenment insight, however, is not that human reason can know everything, but that we can give up attempts to know everything and be satisfied with knowing what we can know. That is, we can be content in making it up as we go along, cautiously. One of the tragedies of the modern world is that too few have learned that lesson.

Fundamentalists, no matter what the specific belief system, believe in their ability to know a lot. That is why it can be so easy for fundamentalists to move from one totalizing belief system to another.

For example, I have a faculty colleague who shifted from being a dogmatic communist to a dogmatic right-wing evangelical Christian.

When people hear of his conversion they often express amazement, though to me it always seemed easy to understand -- he went from one fundamentalism to another. What matters is not so much the content but the shape of the belief system. Such systems should worry us.

That said, not all fundamentalisms pose the same danger to democracy and sustainability. So, let’s go through the four I have identified: religious, national, economic, and technological.

Religion and Nation
The fundamentalism that attracts the most attention is religious. In the United States, the predominant form is Christian. Elsewhere in the world, Islaamic, Jewish, and Hindu fundamentalisms are attractive to some significant portion of populations, either spread across a Diaspora or concentrated in one region, or both.

Given all the attention focused on religious fundamentalism, I’ll assume everyone has at least a passing acquaintance with the phenomenon and is aware of its threats.

But religious fundamentalism is not necessarily the most serious fundamentalist threat loose in the world today.

Certainly much evil has been done in the world in the name of religion, especially the fundamentalist varieties, and we can expect more in the future. But, moving up the list, we also can see clearly the problems posed by national fundamentalism.

Nationalism poses a threat everywhere but should especially concern us in the United States, where the capacity for destruction in the hands of the most powerful state in the history of the world is exacerbated by a pathological hyper-patriotism that tends to suppress internal criticism and leave many unable to hear critique from outside.

In other writing (Chapter 3 of Citizens of the Empire http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0872864324/thirdcoastact-20/002-3901788-0263217 )

I have outlined in some detail an argument that patriotism is intellectually and morally bankrupt. Here, let me simply point out that because a nation-state is an abstraction (lines on a map, not a naturally occurring object), assertions of patriotism (defined as love of or loyalty to a nation-state) raise a simple question: To what we are pledging our love and loyalty? How is that abstraction made real?

I conclude that all the possible answers are indefensible and that instead of pledging allegiance to a nation, we should acknowledge and celebrate our connections to real people in our lives while also declaring a commitment to universal principles, but reject offering commitment to arbitrary political units that in the modern era have been the vehicle for such barbarism and brutality.

That critique applies across the board, but because of our power and peculiar history, a rejection of national fundamentalism is most crucial in the United States.
The dominant conception of that history is captured in the phrase “the city upon a hill,” the notion that the United States came into the world as the first democracy, a beacon to the world.

In addition to setting the example, as soon as it had the capacity to project its power around the world, the United States claimed to be the vehicle for bringing democracy to that world.

These are particularly odd claims for a nation that owes its very existence to one of the most successful genocides in recorded history, the near-complete extermination of indigenous peoples to secure the land and resource base for the United States.

Odder still when one looks at the U.S. practice of African slavery that propelled the United States into the industrial world, and considers the enduring apartheid system - once formal and now informal - that arose from it.

And odd-to-the-point-of-bizarre in the context of imperial America’s behaviour in the world since it emerged as the lone superpower and made central to its foreign policy in the post-WWII era attacks on any challenge in the Third World to U.S. dominance.

While all the empires that have committed great crimes -- the British, French, Belgians, Japanese, Russians and then the Soviets -- have justified their exploitation of others by the alleged benefits it brought to the people being exploited, there is no power so convinced of its own benevolence as the United States.

The culture is delusional in its commitment to this mythology, which is why today one can find on the other side of the world peasant farmers with no formal education who understand better the nature of U.S. power than many faculty members at elite U.S. universities.

This national fundamentalism rooted in the assumption of the benevolence of U.S. foreign and military policy works to trump critical inquiry.

As long as a significant component of the U.S. public – and virtually the entire elite – accept this national fundamentalism, the world is at risk.

Economic fundamentalism, synonymous these days with market fundamentalism, presents another grave threat. After fall of the Soviet system, the naturalness of capitalism is now taken to be beyond question.

The dominant assumption about corporate capitalism in the United States is not simply that it is the best among competing economic systems, but that it is the only sane and rational way to organize an economy in the contemporary world.

In capitalism,
(1) property, including capital assets, is owned and controlled by private persons;
(2) people sell their labour for money wages, and, (3) goods and services are allocated by markets.

In contemporary market fundamentalism, also referred to as neoliberalism, it’s assumed that most extensive use of markets possible will unleash maximal competition, resulting in the greatest good - and all this is inherently just, no matter what the results.

The reigning ideology of so-called “free trade” seeks to impose this neoliberalism everywhere on the globe.

In this fundamentalism, it is an article of faith that the “invisible hand” of the market always provides the preferred result, no matter how awful the consequences may be for real people.

A corresponding tenet of the market fundamentalist view is that the government should not interfere in any of this; the appropriate role of government, we are told, is to stay out of the economy.

This is probably the most ridiculous aspect of the ideology, for the obvious reason that it is the government that establishes the rules for the system (currency, contract law, etc.) and decides whether the wealth accumulated under previous sets of rules should be allowed to remain in the hands of those who accumulated it (typically in ways immoral, illegal, or both;

We should recall the quip that behind every great fortune is a great crime) or be redistributed. To argue that government should stay out of the economy merely obscures the obvious fact that without the government - that is, without rules established through some kind of collective action - there would be no economy.
The government can’t stay out because it’s in from the ground floor, and assertions that government intervention into markets is inherently illegitimate are just silly.

Adding to the absurdity of all this is the hypocrisy of the market fundamentalists, who are quick to call on government to bail them out when things go sour (in recent U.S history, the savings-and-loan and auto industries are the most outrageous examples).

And then there’s the reality of how some government programs - most notably the military and space departments - act as conduits for the transfer of public money to private corporations under the guise of “national defense” and the “exploration of space.”

And then there’s the problem of market failure - the inability of private markets to provide some goods or provide other goods at the most desirable levels - of which economists are well aware.
In other words, economic fundamentalism - the worship of markets combined with steadfast denial about how the system actually operates - leads to a world in which not only are facts irrelevant to the debate, but people learn to ignore their own experience.

On the facts: There is a widening gap between rich and poor, both worldwide and within most nations. According to U.N. statistics, about a quarter of the world’s population lives on less than $1 a day and nearly half live on less than $2.

The 2005 U.N. Report on the World Social Situation, aptly titled “The Inequality Predicament,” stresses: “Ignoring inequality in the pursuit of development is perilous.
Focusing exclusively on economic growth and income generation as a development strategy is ineffective, as it leads to the accumulation of wealth by a few and deepens the poverty of many; such an approach does not acknowledge the intergenerational transmission of poverty.” http://www.un.org/esa/socdev/rwss/media%2005/

That’s where the data lead. But I want to highlight the power of this fundamentalism by reminding us of a common acronym: TGIF.

Everyone in the United States knows what that means: “Thank God it’s Friday.” The majority of Americans don’t just know what TGIF stands for, they feel it in their bones. That’s a way of saying that a majority of Americans do work they generally do not like and do not believe is really worth doing.

That’s a way of saying that we have an economy in which most people spend at least a third of their lives doing things they don’t want to do and don’t believe are valuable. We are told this is a way of organizing an economy that is natural.

Robert Jensen -

Robert Jensen is a journalism professor at the University of Texas at Austin, a founding member of the Nowar Collective.Read More >>

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