Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Introducing Christo-Marxism

Vanishing mediator as central concept
The central concept of Christo-Marxism is the vanishing mediator, the medium that brings us together by vanishing between us, thereby establishing what Hegel calls our "mediated immediacy". In Christianity, obviously, this concept is paradigmatically exemplified by Christ, the Mediator par excellence, who died on the Cross to bring forth the Holy Spirit, the reconciliation of human beings with God and thus with each other. It is the contention of Christo-Marxism that this Christological notion of the divine mediator appears rationalized and secularized in Marxism, most notably in the mundane form of money as the primary means of social exchange. Hence the sin of capitalism, where money is not allowed to vanish in exchange but is rather accumulated as private property in capital. Thus the redemptive function of the vanishing mediator is frustrated. The mediator does not reconcile divergent interests but comes rather to stand between them as their stumbling block. Capitalist society is left unreconciled, increasingly torn by inner contradictions.

Liberal communism
The aim of Christo-Marxism is to re-start the redemptive process by enabling the vanishing mediator to vanish again. In the socio-economic register this implies the necessity of liberal-communist action: breaking the power of capital in order to re-start the flow of money as vanishing mediator. Christo-Marxism, then, is a form of liberal communism: free markets yes, capitalism no. Liberal communism maintains that the level playing field required by the free-market mechanism is incompatible with the unlimited accumulation of capital. Hence the free-market mechanism must be protected against itself, against its tendency to result in antagonism between 'winners' and 'losers', between rich and poor. In other words: a market can only function as truly free market (that is, with a level playing field) in a communist state, where the institution of the market is publicly owned as the shared medium of our economic exchange. Money as vanishing mediator is an integral part of that institution.

 A critique of noise
Christo-Marxism aims to be the critical theory appropriate to the 21st century, where the problematic of social mediation is
through the explosive development of communication and information technology – on the verge of a revolutionary climax. Christo-Marxism, then, is first and foremost a philosophy of communication, its central thesis being the claim that the medium of communication must vanish in the process of communication if the latter is to succeed. Thus one of the reasons why speech constitutes a good medium of communication is the fact that spoken sounds vanish immediately after being uttered. If this were not so, speech would literally become a wall of sound standing between us, directing attention to itself rather than to the notions and feelings of the communicating subjects. This is what the information theoretic concept of noise is all about: the medium that refuses to vanish, drawing attention to its own materiality, thereby obstructing the process of communication. Hence the general failure of communication in our so-called 'network society' due to the increasing capitalization of media, turning them into money making machines instead of consensus making machines. The more a medium is capitalized, the more it draws attention to itself ("Buy me, stay in touch with your friends, be connected to the world..."), the more it constitutes the noise that disturbs communication. Hence the central paradox of our age: a scarcity of true mediation amidst a superabundance of media. Christo-Marxism, then, offers a critique of capitalist noise. 

Third position between autonomy and heteronomy
To repeat: Christo-Marxism aims to be the critical theory appropriate to the 21st century. As such, however, it must rethink the very possibility of critique, given the fact that this possibility has become deeply problematic in our postmodern/neoconservative/fundamentalist age. From the Enlightenment onwards, the critical attitude of modernity has been founded on the autonomy of the subject, who – as the self-legislating source of all normativity – granted itself the right and duty to critically examine every external authority, from the epistemic authority of sense data to the political authority of kings and churches, up to the absolute authority of God himself. The destructive effects of this autonomy of the subject have been pointed out by both postmodernism and neoconservatism, albeit from different angles. Where neoconservatism attacks modernity from above, so to speak, in name of the traditional authorities dethroned by the subject, postmodernism attacks modernity in the flanks, from the side, in the name of the multitude of particular others dominated by the subject's legislating powers. Neoconservatism laments the loss of transcendence, a loss that has left modern society rudderless, in lack of a moral compass, leaving men and women subject to the immediacy of their primitive urges. Postmodernism, on the other hand, laments the 'totalitarian egocentrism' of the subject, its const
itutive blindness to the otherness of the other. As its own source of value, the subject simply cannot recognize the intrinsic value of the other as other: it can value the other only insofar as the other fits the subject's project of self-realization (his Entwurf in Heidegger's terminology).

Christo-Marxism is indebted to both the neoconservative and postmodern line of attack on modernity. Yet as an emphatically critical theory it must save a certain measure of subjective autonomy. Having recognized the cogency of the above criticisms of modern autonomy, we cannot simply sacrifice our autonomy and trade it for heteronomy, in favor of the rights of the Other. That, after all, would plunge us right back into the dogmatism of the Middle-Ages, the very thing the Enlightenment hoped to save us from. This is exactly what happens in fundamentalism, where the criticism of modern autonomy – though reasonable in itself – results in the unconditional acceptance of absolute external authority, revealed in the literal truth of Holy Scripture. Here the critique of autonomy results in the very impossibility of critique. So where does this leave us? We can summarize the problem before us by means of the following chiasm: subjective autonomy without respect for the other becomes totalitarian egocentrism, yet respect for the other without a measure of subjective autonomy becomes dogmatic heteronomy. Hence, to save the possibility of critical thought, we must find a third position between autonomy and heteronomy, a reconciling mediation between the divergent interests of self and other. It is the contention of Christo-Marxism that this third position is founded on the principle of the vanishing mediator.  

Christianity crucial to Marxism
Critical thought, then, must occupy a third position between autonomy and heteronomy. Hence the combination of Christianity and Marxism in Christo-Marxism – a combination that will undoubtedly appear oxymoronic given the militant atheism displayed by Marxism
right from the start. Didn't Marx write that "the critique of religion is the premise of all critique" in his seminal Introduction to the Critique of Hegel's Philosophy of Right? The point to appreciate, however, is that Marxist atheism was part and parcel of the modern critical attitude based on the absolute autonomy of the subject – the very shortcoming of modernity which Christo-Marxism aims to overcome. The autonomous subject gave itself the right and duty to criticize every external authority, up to and including the authority of God. Hence the "Death of God" in modernity. If, therefore, we must counterbalance the autonomy of the subject with a measure of heteronomous respect for otherness, then religion must once again become a serious interlocutor for pure reason and the idea of God must be reanimated in philosophy. Religion, as expressing "the feeling of complete dependence" (Schleiermacher) or as the surrender to the "wholly Other" (Rudolf Otto, Levinas), is after all heteronomy par excellence. As such, religion is the necessary antidote to the self-ascribed omnipotence of the modern subject. To repeat: this does emphatically not mean that we should embrace religion tout court, and that the surrender to the Other should be unconditional, for doing so would plunge us into medieval fundamentalism. The critical point is to find a third between autonomy and heteronomy and thus to initiate a dialogue between reason and religion in order to find their common ground. Critical thought must be that dialogue. Thus the hyphen in Christo-Marxism must first of all be read as a double arrow ("Christo↔Marxism") indicating the dialogical exchange between Christianity and Marxism. Christianity, after all, is the religion of the vanishing mediator as such, the religion in which God – through the Crucifixion – reveals Himself as the vanishing mediator of the entire creation in its ultimate, reconciled state. As such, Christianity must be the religious interlocutor of Marxism qua secular critique of capitalism. 

For what is wrong with capitalism is precisely the dysfunction of the vanishing mediator, the fact that it is not allowed to vanish but is rather accumulated as the source of socio-economic power, thus leaving society unreconciled and torn by increasing contradictions. To be more precise: in capitalism the vanishing mediator (in its economic form as the means of economic exchange, i.e. money) is accumulated in capital, in the means of production and – in post-Fordism – in the means of communication. One of the results, as we have noted, is a general crisis of communication due to capitalist noise. Now if – as Marx shows – capitalism is not just an economic system but a complete social formation, structuring society throughout, then shouldn't we conclude that simply watching how concrete media function is not sufficient, since their very functioning is tainted by the capitalist attitude? What if the capitalist dysfunction of the vanishing mediator extends not just to money and capitalized technology but to media tout court (language as such, for example), embedded as these are in a capitalist environment? It would seem, then, that the merely receptive attitude of empirical investigation is not enough to break through the ideological surface-appearance of capitalist society. To give content to the concept of the vanishing mediator, something more is needed than empirical research. We need a meta-physical lever to break open the surface-appearance of capitalism. Here Christianity proves crucial to Marxism, insofar as the Crucifixion reveals the true functioning of the vanishing mediator, which is concealed by the capitalist accumulation of mediators. Only Christianity gives Marxism the tools to crack the ideological surface-appearance of capitalism.
The between in postmodernism and neoconservatism  
For Christo-Marxism, reconciliation means: finding a third position between autonomy and heteronomy. We have seen how the urgency of finding this third follows from the dialectic between the postmodern and neoconservative attacks on modern autonomy and the subsequent need to avoid a relapse into fundamentalist heteronomy. In the following I will elaborate on this notion of reconciliation, and how it is made possible by the vanishing mediator, by taking a closer look at the dialectic between postmodernism and neoconservatism. The point is that both ideologies, as critiques of modernity, must posit some notion of this third position in order to avoid fundamentalism. This explains a remarkable and usually ignored convergence between postmodernism and neoconservatism, insofar as both ideologies have produced conceptions of “the (in-)between” (alternatively: das Zwischen, le entre, the inter, the metaxy) as third positions beyond the modern dichotomy of self and other, autonomy and heteronomy. Thus we find notions of the between cropping up in the work of postmodern thinkers like Derrida, Lyotard and Deleuze, but also in neoconservative thinkers like Voegelin, Ortega y Gasset and Christopher Dawkins. We also find thinkers who combine postmodern en neoconservative conceptions of the between, notably Sloterdijk and William Desmond, whose work will be of special importance for the articulation of Christo-Marxism, as will be shown later. For now, however, let us focus on the difference between the postmodern and neoconservative conceptions of the between.

Given the radically different approaches of postmodernism and neoconservatism, their notions of the between vary greatly, which is precisely what makes a dialogue between them so fruitful, notably for Christo-Marxism. We have already remarked on the complementary ‘spatial’ directions of the postmodern and neoconservative attacks on modernity: whereas neoconservatism attacks ‘from above’ in name of the traditional authorities dethroned by the autonomous subject, postmodernism attacks ‘from the side, in the flanks’ in name of the multitude of particular others forced into subaltern positions by the authority of the autonomous subject. As a result, these different ‘spatial’ orientations can also be found in the postmodern and neoconservative conceptions of the between. Schematically we can say that whereas postmodern thinkers like Derrida and Deleuze are forced (by the necessity to avoid fundamentalism) to develop a horizontal between – between self and other, freed from hierarchy and dominance – neoconservative thinkers like Voegelin and Ortega y Gasset are forced to find a vertical between, i.e. a Platonic metaxy, a middle between the earthly and the divine. 

Consider, for example, what Dutch philosopher Antoon van den Braembussche writes in his dictionary of postmodernism: “In-between is a key concept in postmodern thought, which is sometimes called the ‘philosophy of the in-between’. In all cases what is at stake is an […] undecidable moment, where between binary opposites there arises a free floating space that cannot be specified any further. What is at stake is a ‘placeless place’, which is neither A nor B, neither man nor woman, neither body nor spirit, but which at the same time is penetrated by both opposites.” (2007: 158) The horizontal orientation of the postmodern between emerges clearly when Van den Braembussche points out the intercultural consequences of this notion of the between, indicating a free and egalitarian space between cultures. Thus he writes of the “in-between between the native and the foreign culture, a kind of bastard form, which belongs neither to the native nor to the foreign culture […] but which at the same time realizes a hybrid in which both cultures are already integrated.” (Ibidem.) Inasmuch as this intercultural between realizes an integrated hybrid, the alleged superiority of one culture over the other (read: the claim of the modern West to be superior to primitive peoples) is undermined, just like the power of one over the other is undermined, since the hybrid escapes the grasp of either culture, like a demilitarized no man’s land between warring states.

Now consider the vertical between of neoconservatism, between ‘the low’ and ‘the high’, the earthly and the divine, the temporal and the eternal, the finite and the infinite. Referring to this vertical between, neoconservative thinkers often use Plato’s concept of the metaxy, that is, the middle between the temporal world of the sensory flux and the eternal world of the divine Ideas. In the Symposium Plato introduces the metaxy through a myth about the birth of Eros, that is, love as the (semi-)divine force behind man’s desire for beauty and procreation – a love which in the end is aimed at the divine itself. Eros, Plato writes, is the child of Poros (prosperity) and Penia (poverty), and as such Eros lives between the animal and the divine, between extreme ignorance and absolute wisdom. According to Eric Voegelin, this vertical between is the human condition: “Existence has the structure of the In-Between, of the Platonic metaxy, and if anything is constant in the history of mankind it is the language of tension between life and death, immortality and mortality, perfection and imperfection, time and timelessness; between order and disorder, truth and untruth, sense and senselessness of existence; between amor Dei and amor sui […].” (1989: 119-120) Because man lives in the tension between the earthly and the divine, he has “always already” a feeling for the divine order of the cosmos. It is this order which man must approximate in culture, though he can never grasp it completely, since he must live in the tension of the metaxy – a tension which according to Voegelin is eminently expressed in the Greek-Jewish-Christian traditions. This metaxic “tension of existence” must always be kept alive. Otherwise, so Voegelin warns us, catastrophes will ensue. On the one hand, the divine may disappear from view altogether, spelling the ruin of society in nihilism and anarchy. This is what happens in modernity when the critical ideal of autonomy, having cut itself loose from external authority, degenerates into unchecked individualism, egoism and hedonism. On the other hand, when sight of the metaxy is lost, the divine may also come too close, leaving no space for human autonomy, resulting in religious totalitarianism. This, of course, is what happens in fundamentalism, where divine Truth is experienced as immediately given in Holy Scripture, without intermediation by human interpretation. Thus as one Voegelinian puts it: “The seeking of heaven can lead to the establishment of hell once balance in the metaxy is lost, as it is lost […] in religious fundamentalism.” (Morrissey 1999: 22)

Christianity between postmodernism and neoconservatism

So on the one hand we have the horizontal between of postmodernism, the non-hierarchical interrelation of self and other. On the other we have the vertical between of neoconservatism, the hierarchical metaxy between the earthly and the divine. The complementarity between these positions – between the horizontal and the vertical – is striking. Doesn’t this suggest that the postmodern and neoconservative notions of the between should somehow be seen together in order to see the whole truth, that is to say: to develop a full-fledged third position between autonomy and heteronomy? Don’t we need a third notion of the between here, a between between the horizontal between and the vertical between, so to speak? Notice that if we take this suggestion seriously, we arrive at a cross shaped between, where the non-hierarchical relation between self and other intersects with the vertical orientation of the metaxy. Aren’t we reminded here of the Christian symbolism of the Cross? And doesn’t this reveal something of the importance of Christianity as an answer to our current problem situation, shaped by the dialectic of postmodernism, neoconservatism and fundamentalism?

 Indeed, following Luther, many theologians speak of the horizontal and vertical dimensions of Christianity, where the vertical obviously consists in the human relation to God and the horizontal in the solidarity between humans and with creation as a whole (Kolb 2004). Luther claimed – echoed by theologians like Barth, Tillich, Niebuhr and Bonhoeffer – that in Christianity these horizontal and vertical dimensions are essentially interrelated in a historically unique way. On the one hand the vertical relation to God is actualized only in the agapeic love between human beings and with creation, reconciled in the Holy Spirit. On the other hand, the horizontal dimension of human love is only made possible by the ‘vertical’ sacrifice of God, who becomes man in Christ, suffering and dying to expiate human violence. It has been noted before that the Cross symbolizes not just this divine sacrifice but also this essential interconnection of the horizontal and vertical dimensions of Christianity (Guénon 1975). Something of this symbolism can be found in Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, where he speaks of “the breadth and length and height and depth” of Christian love (Ephesians 3,18).

So how does Christianity allow us to synthesize the postmodern and neoconservative notions of the between and thereby to develop a
true middle between autonomy and heteronomy? Obviously, the mere analogy between the symbol of the Cross on the one hand and the complementarity of the horizontal and the vertical orientations of the between on the other is insufficient to demonstrate the relevance of Christianity. What we need are philosophical, theological and political arguments. Delivering these arguments is precisely what Christo-Marxism is all about. Thus the central thesis of Christo-Marxism is that the non-hierarchical relation of self and other in the horizontal between is only opened up by a sacrifice in the metaxy, that is to say, by the death of the God-man Christ as the vanishing mediator in the mediated immediacy of reconciliation. In other words: to envisage a non-hierarchical togetherness of self and other, postmodernism needs a measure of neoconservatism: it needs a neoconservative return to the transcendent authority of Christianity. At the same time, however, this authority must be thought of as radically humble, self-effacing, sacrificing itself for the reconciliation of self and other. In that sense, one could say, the perverse power claim of what calls itself neoconservatism in the realm of politics – epitomized by the war mongering and neo-liberal Bush administration – is avoided and indeed criticized on principle grounds. In so far as Christo-Marxism, in its rehabilitation of the authority of Christianity, has neoconservative traits, it proclaims a decidedly leftist neoconservatism, aimed at the critique of existing power structures.  

-Guénon, René (1975), The symbolism of the Cross. London: Luzak and Co.
-Kolb, Robert (2004), "Luther on the Two Kinds of Righteousness", in: Wengert, T.J. (eds),
Harvesting Martin Luther's Reflections on Theology, Ethics, and the Church, pp.38-55. Cambridge, Eerdmans Publishing Company.
-Morrissey, Michael P. (1999), "Voegelin, Religious Experience, and Immortality", in: Hughes, Glenn (ed.), The Politics of the Soul: Eric Voegelin on Religious Experience, pp.11-32. Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield.
-Van den Braembussche, Antoon (2007), Postmodernisme: Een intertekstueel woordenboek. Budel: Damon.
-Voegelin, Eric (1989), “Equivalences of Experience and Symbolization in History”, in: Sandoz, Ellis (ed.), The Collected Works of Eric Voegelin, vol. 12. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press.

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