by Dr. Paul Cleveland –
The contentiousness of the recent presidential election provides an apt occasion for us to ask the question, “Are we ‘coming apart’?” to borrow from the title of Charles Murray’s recent book. To understand the nature of the current hostility we must first find its roots. Indeed, the seeds of it were not sown in the last decade or even in the last fifty years. In truth, we must go back to at least the late eighteenth century to find the seeds of the modern culture wars.
The rapid development of scientific inquiry in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries had resulted in many discoveries that gave us a far better understanding of the world that we inhabit. By the eighteenth century these discoveries were resulting in numerous inventions of various sorts that relied upon the scientific principles that had been found. It is important to note that scientists at this time largely pursued their research based on the notion that God had created the universe with an established order that could be discovered by the use of reason and the scientific method. Based on such a belief it was understood that while people are certainly part of nature, they also transcend nature by bearing the image of God. That is, it was understood that human beings have a special dignity in this world and, hence, the capability of understanding and knowing things about it.
However, by the late eighteenth century some philosophers and scientists began to promote the idea that nature is all there is and human beings are not transcendent but are merely part of a machine of sorts. Based on this perspective nature is to be understood as nothing more than a total system of cause and effect relationships that can be finally explained without remainder. It should be immediately recognized that this new view is atheistic. As a result, there was a growing assertion that the only reliable means of acquiring knowledge was through the use of the empirical method. In other words, the argument was that the only thing that we can know is that which can be empirically verified. The use of logic and reason was thus increasingly thrown to the curb. There is a fundamental problem with this assertion, however. The assertion itself cannot be empirically verified because it is a metaphysical assertion. It is this inherent contradiction which is embedded in the modern scientific effort that has led to a wide variety of post modern irrationality. In regards to cultural issues it has given rise to cultural Marxism which is the source of much of the current conflict in Western societies.
Therefore, if we are to understand the current hostility in our culture we must understand how this new conception of reality spread in the study of political economy. Prior to the nineteenth century political economists operated largely on the older conception of the world. For example, Adam Smith and Jean Baptist Say were natural law theorists. They presumed that there was an underlying moral order to society and were engaged in an effort to identify how that order could best be discovered and then acted upon for the benefit of humanity. It was along the lines of this kind of reasoning that the individual natural rights of life, liberty and property were promoted. And, it was on this basis that early political theorists began to see the rule of private property law and voluntary exchange as the established means of promoting the greatest human flourishing. It wasn’t until the nineteenth century that this notion began to be challenged by social science writers and philosophers. But, in time, it was challenged.
Perhaps the English philosopher who has had the most profound impact in promoting the atheistic view in the area of law and economics was Jeremy Bentham. Bentham argued that human beings have no natural rights since they are nothing more than another animal existing in this world. Based on his view he asserted that all people prefer pleasure to pain and, therefore, the only reasonable political order should be established on a hedonistic calculus. That is, he asserted that any potential rule or law should be tested to see if the pleasure it extends outweighs any pain it might inflict. According to Bentham, if so it is a good law and if not it should be rejected. Of course, there are many fundamental problems with this proposition. The chief one among these is that pleasure and pain are subjective and cannot be measured. Nevertheless, this idea has figured mightily into modern day politics as most every policy or program is discussed on the basis of a cost benefit analysis and not on the basis of whether or not the political action is moral.
Bentham’s utilitarianism made its way into the study of economics as a result of his most famous student, John Stuart Mill. In fact, it was Mill who coined the term by writing a book by that title. It was as a result of Mill’s work in the English academy that this idea became embedded in the pursuit of inquiry into political economy. Perhaps unwittingly, Alfred Marshall helped pave the way for this by his use of mathematical modeling that gave economics a greater scientific feel than it had beforehand. Under the natural law approach writings in political economy were largely carried out under the auspices of the older moral philosophy. Indeed, it was some of Marshall’s students, including A. C. Pigou, Joan Robinson, and Edward Chamberlin, who spawned modern welfare economics that more thoroughly embraced the new utilitarianism. However, telling this story will take us off track from some more important considerations. Indeed, Bentham, Mill, and many other economists of the time were favorably disposed to free enterprise on the basis of their utilitarian conception of things. However, there is nothing inherent in utilitarianism itself that would firmly establish its commitment in that direction. In fact, it was another student of Marshall that proved that point. In the 1930s when John Maynard Keynes published his, General Theory he moved the discipline toward embracing an interventionist and socialist view of the world. To get to the bigger picture we need to consider the underlying atheism of the new conception of reality and the utopian visions it birthed.
Within the framework of the new atheistic viewpoint, the economic progress arising from the use of new inventions, which had increasingly been coupled with a commitment to free enterprise, opened the door for numerous utopian visions of the future to develop. As the new atheist utopians saw the matter the problem of achieving ultimate happiness on earth was that people act upon their individual self-interest rather than in a fully coordinated fashion. Utopians, then and now conceive of people as just another animal species and, hence, focus their attention on promoting the common good of the herd rather than the interests of the individual. Thus, they need to root out behavior whereby people pursue their personal interests by using the force of government as the tool to accomplish the introduction of their utopian vision. Put simply, their plan is, “To use government to coordinate all efforts toward realizing maximum happiness on this earth, and to root out and destroy all that stands in the way.”[i]
There is one essential problem with this effort. To achieve the goal they must root out self-interested human action. Moreover, there must be universal agreement on what the “good” is. But by nature people simply will never behave this way. What one person values another does not. Some people find excitement and value in mountain climbing while others would prefer vacationing at the beach. Some people prefer chocolate ice cream while others prefer vanilla. The truth is that valuation of things in this world is subjective. There never was and never will be universal agreement on what is worthwhile pursuing. Thus to achieve the utopian goal means that the rulers must alter human nature itself. Indeed, this is the essence of their effort and they plan to do it by force.
But we must ask the question. Can you change human nature? Moreover, is self-interested human action to be despised in this way? It would seem to me that attempting to alter human nature is a fool’s errand. We are all born into this world with certain human traits and characteristics. We all come to the point of our own self-awareness. We can all think about ourselves and think about our futures. Therefore, we can all make plans to move us from where we are to some desired future. Could this possibly be changed without destroying the individual person? In addition to these facts, it is also the case that we are all very different from one another. We have different talents, gifts, and interests. This is certainly not a bad thing since it gives rise to opportunities for us to use these differences for the edification of others by way of voluntary interaction and exchange. Finally, a healthy regard for one’s self is necessary to sustain life. It’s a good thing to provide food for ourselves for we must eat to survive and it is good to look both ways before crossing busy streets. We likely could not survive a single day of life without acting upon our own self-interest. Given these facts of life it ought to be quite obvious even to the casual observer that the effort of the utopian is nonsensical.
Despite this there are many among us who are committed to the utopian cause. To be sure, most would not call themselves utopians. Rather, they prefer to call themselves progressives or liberals or socialists. They do so because socialism in its broadest context is the only means they have of achieving their ends. Their effort is fundamentally a political effort to rule over and direct the lives of other people. Since the realization of the goal can only be accomplished by governmental means they make all of life political. In so doing they continually press to consolidate power and control into governmental hands. But the more power that government usurps the more impotent the populace becomes. The problem here is that this consolidation of power undermines the productive efforts of people generally and destroys the economy. Rather than promoting progress, they promote poverty and destruction. The reality of this was demonstrated rather well in the former Soviet Union that eventually reduced its populace to near total poverty. The same thing has been done in Cuba and is currently being done in Venezuela. In fact, the resulting widespread poverty is the inevitable result of the effort. It is built into the system so to speak.
Despite the repeated failures of socialism, those swayed by it continue to embrace it and argue that it will eventually work. As was clear from the experience of the Soviet Union and other socialist endeavors they inevitably make up supposed facts and numbers aimed at showing economic progress even in the face of obvious failures. Why do they lie this way? In truth, they have no choice. To admit the truth would be to give up on the project. And, since the effort is largely a religious effort, they are unwilling to do that. So deception and lies are constantly proliferated in an effort to gain popular support. We might ask ourselves, who needs to be deceived? The answer is that everyone needs to be deceived, especially those committed to holding and using political power. They must deceive even themselves.
Thus, when people refuse to go along with the socialists plans they must be demeaned and marginalized as obstructionists. One of the first tactics that the socialists use in pursuing their ultimate goal is to tear down the moral foundations upon which the society rests. If they are to succeed in remaking human nature in terms of their own vision they must strip away everything that the old order is established upon. For this reason they are constantly promoting abnormal behavior as if it were normal to make the average person feel more and more uneasy. This is the essence of cultural Marxism. The media and fashion makers are often useful tools or collaborators in this endeavor. But the result of such tensions is inevitably greater conflict.
To understand this we only need to understand something about Marxism itself. What Karl Marx proposed was an all out attack on the past. He proposed a new anti-religion, religion that was and is atheistic at its core. “The engine of Marxism is hatred—hatred for everything as it is, hatred of religion, hatred of the division of labor, hatred of the state, hatred of capitalists, and hatred of private property. Above all, Marxism is a hatred of the past, everything shaped out of it, everything drawn from it, which is to say, just about everything. In short, Marxism hates man as he is and has been.”[ii] Thus Marx aimed to destroy the world as it is in order to introduce a supposed glorious future. He rejected the Christian religion with its hope for redemption from sin to promote a new secular and atheistic religion built on the revolution.
The Russian Revolution was an example of this where the Bolsheviks used guns and violence to overthrow the existing political order. The same took place in Mao’s China and in Castro’s Cuba. Such revolutions are marked by their immediate brutality as those opposed to the revolution, or thought to be opposed to it, are slaughtered. But the revolution need not start with guns. It can begin with an election that is quickly followed by the use of guns and violence. This was the case with the election of Adolph Hitler and Nazi Germany. More recently it was also the case of the election of Hugo Chavez in Venezuela. Once elected they quickly consolidated their political power reducing the general populace to powerless spectators. In the case of Venezuela thus far, even massive demonstrations in the streets of the capital have been unable to alter the power structures of that country. Proponents of socialism often argue that such tyranny is an aberration. But that is just not true. It is inherent in the effort because violence and bloodshed are inseparably tied to the revolution.
That Marxist ideology has had a profound impact on the world that we live in is not to be doubted. Indeed, proponents of socialism in places not marked by the revolution have embraced another strategy for remaking human nature. They are pursuing the utopian goal by evolutionary means rather than revolutionary means. That is, they are pressing for the same goals, the destruction of private property, capitalism, and self-interested human action by incremental political means. Their goal is to use the force of government bit-by-bit in order to achieve their socialist goal. Most of the nations of the world have been on this path and, thus, most people live in a place that is somewhere between the old order of things and the new socialist vision of things. It should be noted that the socialist vision cannot be separated from its inherent atheism despite the efforts of so-called Christian socialists. Such advocates have either unwittingly or intentionally denied the very foundations of their faith. Since the socialist effort uses force against one’s neighbor to obtain its goals it violates God’s commands of how we are to live with others. For example, governmental redistribution of private property violates the eighth commandment and uses the government to steal the property of one’s neighbor for collective purposes. Christians ought to fight against such oppression and advocate protecting private property instead of violating it.
The result of all of this is that we are caught in an ongoing struggle between traditional Judeo-Christianity and atheism. It was on the basis of the Christian religion that advances were continually made for the individual person. Such things as the slave trade were eventually denounced and ended in this way. But, socialism has no regard for the individual. To the extent that it has advanced in the world is the extent to which we are indeed “coming apart.” I can only imagine that the cultural hostility we are facing will escalate as more and more people are swayed by the vanity of the utopian dream.
While it is certainly true that this world is very imperfect, it is also true that there is a vast difference in the explanation for this situation made by Christians and Marxists. The Christian religion tells us that the reason for pain and suffering in this world lies in every human heart. That is, we each fall seriously short of God’s moral target. Put simply, we are sinners deserving God’s just punishment. However, Christianity also tells us that we each bear God’s image and that ought to be celebrated. Moreover, it also tells us that God has a plan for the redemption of his creation. Yet the fulfillment of that plan must wait for the culmination of all things. In the meantime we must struggle in this world against our own failures and to spread God’s redemptive plan by teaching it to others. Our efforts in the here and now ought to be to live at peace with our neighbors as much as it depends on us without sacrificing the truth.
When it comes to the government the Christian realizes that it is necessary because of sin. Since sinners do in fact lie to one another, steal from one another, murder one another, and live immoral lives, there is need for some level of just remediation of these transgressions if civilization is to survive. But even that will fall far short of perfection because all government action requires the use of force and that force can be, and repeatedly has been, used for illegitimate ends rather than for legitimate ends. As the Apostle Paul put the matter, the role of government is to punish wrongdoers.[iii] The catch is to keep government within its legitimate boundaries. The truth here is that societies and their governments will always be sometimes better and sometimes worse in this world. Christians can work for better government by embracing and applying the moral commands of God. The success of this effort would promote greater peace.
[i] Carson, Clarence B., Paul A. Cleveland, and L. Dwayne Barney, The Great Utopian Delusion: The Global Rise of Government and the Destruction of Liberty, (Birmingham, AL: Boundary Stone, 2015), p. 10.
[ii] Ibid, p. 22.
[iii] Romans 13.