22 August 2011

Barbarians at the gate

I've quoted approvingly from Jordan Stratford, the Gnostic Monsignor and author, a couple of times which you might remember. I finally got around to buying his exposition of his modern faith-culture, Living Gnosticism. Now I've criticised Msgr. Stratford once before as being a representative of "the occultism of small businessmen" ("unorthodox faith" movements which don't break with the underlying material base of the secular and/or institutionalised faith culture they live in). In that regard I was particularly struck by parts of the closing essay of his small and worthy book, in which he foresees a quasi-apocalyptic clash between the Apollonian (rationalist and liberal) culture of the metropolis and the Dionysian (irrational, ecstatic, fundamentalist) culture of the periphery. Although I don't think that's really the clash he's talking about:

The barefoot glossolalians are emerging from the desert once again. Only whereas in the second century, these cultures met one another on a fairly equal footing, this time the North is vastly outnumbered... What happens when a generation of hip, aware, tattooed, multilingual, educated, environmentally-responsible Episcopalian urbanites who stopped at one child (if any) is overcome by a majority of dozen-siblinged fundamentalists who think being gay is caused by demonic possession? The North has been outbred by the South, and the fundamentalists are basically just waiting for us - and our egalitarian, feminist, green, tolerant, "reasonable" Apollonian culture - to die out.

The ignorant unwashed masses are outbreeding our liberal aristocracy?!? Holy crap, stop right there, Pim Fortuyn. This is how quickly urban, tolerant liberalism can flip into out sheer imperialism, close to racism. Because they are the left wing of globalised imperialism, of course they're going to be terrified by the end of globalised imperialism and therefore their privileges as the systems' internal, polite, critics.

But seriously, in the immortal words of Tonto, "what do you mean our culture, paleface"? Is the dominant culture of the West really feminist and green and egalitarian? You know, with all the rape and sexual objectification and extractive industry and consumeristic waste and people begging on the streets? No it bloody isn't. A very small privileged layer - among whom Msgr. Stratford lives and for whom he speaks - gets to live that way, because they're the middle class professionals and skilled workers who benefit from the real underpinning of "their culture" - the continued pillaging of natural resources and super-exploitation of the global proletariat in the name of glorious profit. You are not more environmentally aware because you breed less, especially if you on your own have a bigger environmental footprint than Reverend Kiswahili or Mullah Omar and their dozen kids whom you're having paranoid dreams about.

Jordan Stratford goes on about Athenian culture, and the later culture of the Roman Empire, being swamped by primitive backwards Christianity, and within "two generations... the plumbing stopped working". Uh-huh. Now this is where middle-class idealism gets you. Athenian society was based on slavery (and oppression of women of a Saudi Arabia level, or perhaps worse). The Roman Empire was based on slavery and conquering as much of the known world as they could hold. And Christianity was the overwhelmingly popular religion of those slaves by the time of the fourth century CE. The social system had run out of steam. The Lombards, Goths, Vandals and other barbarian hordes were relatively more vigorous than decadent, senile Rome, no matter whether they were sacrificing to Zeus or celebrating the Eucharist.

Yes, it's true. Neoliberal, globalised, financialised capitalism makes a very sweet lifestyle possible for a middle-class layer who - precisely because they're not struggling for a crust, and because they don't have to directly exploit anyone - can make consumer choices which they interpret as a life of virtue. That's not the culture I have any interest in protecting. To paraphrase Catharine MacKinnon, and that's something I thought I'd never do: "if your genteel culture requires having a global slave class, you have no right to your genteel culture."

To be fair, though, Msgr. Stratford isn't precisely defending the Empire against the barbarians at the gates. What he's suggesting is that Gnosticism is an example of a compromise. But the real compromise can't be a new faith or an old faith or a culture or a creed, it has to be a material way of existing. The fundamentalist hordes don't have a solution - when the kind of people he's worried about took over in Iran in 1979, nothing really changed except some industry got nationalised and the regime stopped grovelling to American foreign policy.

If your culture of "Lulu Lemon yoga gear and $200 Nikes... "Tradition" starbucks cups... [and] Bang & Olufsen speakers" has nothing to say to people who live in grinding poverty and whose faith is all they have and do not really take kindly to being told not to reproduce themselves by corpulent, privileged white folks, then you need to think a bit more clearly. The only people who can change the world and create a new culture on a new material base are the globalised proletariat - the people who actually make all those things that Jordan Stratford's people consume. Isn't it such a pity that the United States spent so long wiping out communist movements among that class of people in the 70's and 80's and instead building the credentials of the religious fundamentalists that are now the Great Satan?

(As an aside, by "global proletariat" we have to include the information workers, and this is where those of us with plenty of Western cultural capital can intervene. I more and more think that Anonymous has become the modern equivalent of 1870's Russian Narodnik terrorists. I wonder what form a "Cyber-Bolshevik" party might take. Just as the tiny but vital industrial proletariat in Russia had to make an alliance with the peasant masses to win power, the vanguard of modern information workers who keep globalised capitalism and consumerism functioning have to line up with the inhabitants of the sweatshops of China and the coffee plantations of Colombia.)

Chaos Marxism stands against both fundamentalist obscurantism, and a defence of "liberalism and Western culture" which is nothing more but an appeal for the perpetuation of the privileges of the middle class.


  1. This seems like not just a misrepresentation of my position and a fundamental misunderstanding of my work, but a torrent of non-sequiturs emerging from a high pressure hose.

    The premise of my concluding piece in the book is this: change is coming, and rather than find solutions in one extreme or the other, that a syncretic and compassionate solution, rooted in history, is available to us.

    I'm not defending - but merely illustrating - contemporary Western consumer culture. I'm addressing, through caricature, the fears that culture has around those things it most values - not goods, but ideas.

    I maintain there is a third way, outside of capitalism vs. socialism, outside of Apollo vs. Dionysian, outside of them-us. And that mature, nuanced, blended path is illustrated by Gnostic literature and its syncretic world view. Please feel free to disagree with this premise, but kindly do not misrepresent it.

  2. Thanks for participating. If you know anything about this blog, then you will know that "torrent of non-sequiturs emerging from a high pressure hose" is a fair description of many of our articles.

    But I stand by my statement that it is very irresponsible to be using words like "outbred", which is the language of the Enoch Powells and Geert Wilders of this world (I don't know what the Canadian equivalent would be, but they probably live in Alberta) - even if it is supposed to be a caricature of a viewpoint that you're criticising. You don't seem to dispute what I'm saying that when you say "contemporary Western consumer culture", you're talking about the culture of a very privileged layer, not the culture of the broader social system on which it relies, which is anything but feminist, green and egalitarian. And I heartily disagree that the working poor of the large Western cities value ideas over goods at this point in space-time.

    Talking about a "third way between capitalism and socialism" doesn't make me feel a lot better, because - and you probably don't know this - that in itself is a slogan sometimes used by the far right. And in any case I think that it makes as much sense as a third way between cancer and chemotherapy.

  3. "it makes as much sense as a third way between cancer and chemotherapy."

    Well, Gnosticism does not factor into the socialism vs. capitalism debate except to suggest there's an entire conversation to be had outside of it.

  4. "...there's an entire conversation to be had outside of it."

    Well, there is an there isn't. Insofar as you participate in the global capitalist system, it makes little sense to speak of a conversation 'outside'. You can de-emphasis or ignore your embeddedness in socio-economic-political reality, but it is fundamentally impossible to step outside that reality so long as your life remains plugged into it (and just the fact that we are communicating as we are right is proof that we are plugged into this system - where did you get the computer you're writing on? How is it that you have enough free time to talk about Gnosticism on the internet, instead of, say, slaving away for 12+ hours a day at some factory or diamond mine?). Any conversation that truly seeks to address the fundamental nature of reality has to take these issues into account - any conversation that doesn't adequately take them into account is a conversation being held by those priveleged enough to ignore the material base of their culture.

    Don't get me wrong, I'm all for balance and syncretism - my own spiritual path emphasizes both of these as a virtue. But the global economic and political system we are living under is precisely a system that is fatally, catastrophically out of balance in every sense there is - and any authentic spirituality, in my opinion, has to acknowledge that. I won't speak for Doloras but I imagine that is a large part of her point.