20 January 2019

Orthodoxy and indigenous solidarity

Orthodox celebration in Aleut community in Nikol’skoe, Russia

I am not going to pass direct comment on the Covington Catholic / Nathan Philips story, for the simple reason that I wasn’t there and am not in a position to pass comment. However, I do feel strongly about the ‘framing’ of the story, and the artificial way in which pro-life and indigenous-rights concerns were opposed to each other, on the basis of one being traditionally a concern of the American ‘left’, and the other a concern of the American ‘right’.

I won’t belabour the theological and anthropological reasons for Orthodox Christians to take such a stand, but Orthodox Christians in the United States are, for understandable and (in my own opinion) correct reasons, drawn to the cause of the defence of the unborn. That is well and good. However, I believe we can likewise draw a strong moral and practical case for Orthodox Christians to embrace the cause of indigenous rights.

I am not simply speaking of the ample historical witness of great Orthodox holy men who witnessed among indigenous peoples and spoke up on behalf of their dignity whenever it was trampled: Saint Mark the Evangelist, Venerable Tryphon of Pechenga; Saint Herman the Wonderworker of Alaska; Patriarch Saint Tikhon of Moscow; Saint Jacob (Netsvetov); Archimandrite Andres (Girón) of blessed memory and Fr Themi (Adamopoulos) – though these witnesses are indeed important.

And I am not simply speaking of the general moral principles of justice within and between nations which hold that the only defensible war is a war of defence (and not a war of conquest), within the Church that peoples deserve a certain measure of collective identity outside of church and state, that cultural identity is not overridden by either religious or sæcular pretensions to a singular abstract universal truth – though, obviously, these are important too. Particularly when it comes to assessing questions of historiography.

At its best – or rather, when it holds to its own principles – Orthodox ecclesiology itself militates on behalf of indigenous peoples, for the simple reason that the Orthodox Church seeks to present the tactile and specific reality of the risen Christ to the people in a tongue that they can understand. Orthodoxy evades also the Protestant temptation to eradicate local customs – again, Orthodox missionaries seeking to redeem rather than erase and then superimpose foreign structures upon the cultures of the non-Christian peoples amongst whom they worked.

In addition, we must address the current realities. Orthodox Christianity, despite being the official religion of the Roman Empire for a significant length of time, nonetheless seems – at its best – to draw near to the crucified peoples of the world: the Arab Christians of Palestine and Syria, the Rusins – and historically, the Bulgarians and the Greeks. The plight of the Arab Christians in the Middle East is real: they face extinction at the hands of Sunnî fundamentalists and the revanchists of Turkey, Israel and Kurdistan. There is a very real affinity between the Orthodox historical witness and the current plight of the world’s indigenous peoples.

That plight is strikingly similar the world over. The Índios of Brazil, the Maya of Guatemala (many of them Orthodox) and Honduras – both face direct persecution and settler encroachment at the hands of right-wing governments. The indigenous inhabitants of the Congo have faced genocidal violence for over 20 years at the hands of neoliberal states after their mineral wealth. In East Asia, indigenous Taiwanese people face cultural discrimination and abridgement of their œconomic rights. The indigenous people of Okinawa are still fighting a battle against the American Marine base at Futenma, and for their land and water rights. And here in the United States, we have the indigenous resistance to the Tar Sands pipelines – first Standing Rock, and now Line 3 – and to the abuse and abduction of indigenous women.

Here’s the thing. Just as the plight of unborn children is not a ‘left’ issue or a ‘right’ issue, the plight of indigenous people is also not a ‘left’ issue or a ‘right’ issue; indeed it has some overlap with both. Indigenous values include traditional manhood, traditional womanhood, respect for the elderly and the sanctity and integrity of the child: all things which traditionalist conservatives can appreciate. On the other hand, indigenous worldviews also establish priorities for œcological and œconomic justice, promote reciprocality and generosity, and eschew acquisitive individualism: things which the socialist left can understand and admire. These are all, furthermore, concerns which the Orthodox Church also holds dear.

17 January 2019

The problem with ‘woke’ ad campaigns

It seemed to me for a moment like my memory was playing tricks on me, but apparently not: looking back into ye olde blog archive, about five years ago I posted this little gem about Proctor & Gamble promoting hip, ‘woke’ feminism via their Pantene brand, targetted at women. And now it seems the same big pharma corporation is using one of their ‘men’s’ brands, Gillette, to get in on the same angle, with a hip, ‘woke’ variation on their slogan, ‘The Best a Man Can Get’. Back then, I believe the exact phrase I used was: ‘Guh.’ So, here it is, gentle readers: the Feminist™ critique of toxic masculinity. Brought to you (again!) by Proctor & Gamble. Guh.

Back then, I made the rather simplistic point, echoing Nancy Fraser (who said it better) that neoliberal capitalism and feminism are not necessarily at odds with each other. Indeed, they even have some common interests. Not that such a conclusion was wrong, of course. The confluence between neoliberal interests in demoralised, replaceable, fungible labour on the one hand, and the liberal-feminist suspicion of rooted family structures on the other, is clear, obvious, and requires critique from the left. Such a critique is not only possible, but historically-evidenced and necessary. But now that angle of approach seems to miss a broader point: a point that has only come into clearer focus as I have read more books by Christopher Lasch, René Girard, and Thomas Frank.

Thomas Frank, author, analyst and contributor to the Guardian, the Baffler and the Real News Network, whose book Listen, Liberal is a notable cry from the heart for the American political left to remember its working-class roots, has an incisive critique of ‘woke’ neoliberalism from the opposite angle. Sure, on the production side of the equation, there is a confluence of interests between a sæcularising left which views the family with suspicion and a corporate capitalism willing and ready to seize upon the breakup of the family œconomy for the cheaper labour it frees up. But on the consumption side of the equation, Frank’s The Conquest of Cool ought to be required reading.

In brief, The Conquest of Cool details how the notably un-cool marketing machines for the American corporate world managed to study the rise of the youth movement and the counter-culture of the 1960s and make rebranding themselves a perpetual strategy. The ‘hip’-ness of youth rebellion and non-conformism was coöpted and transformed, with resounding success, into an ‘official capitalist style’, starting with the first minimalist advertisements for Volkswagen in the 1960’s as they catered to the youth market with a self-subversive style, and ending with the embrace of the sleek futurist æsthetic that is the Apple brand. Not only that, but they did so in full faith that the creative-destructive aims of the counterculture were right and just and good – which should be a trifle disturbing for anyone who truly believed in the counterculture! As Frank writes:
Many in American business, particularly in the two industries studied here, imagined the counterculture not as an enemy to be undermined or a threat to consumer culture but as a hopeful sign, a symbolic ally in their own struggles against the mountains of dead-weight procedure and hierarchy that had accumulated over the years…

Like the young insurgents, people in more advanced reaches of the American corporate world deplored conformity, distrusted routine, and encouraged resistance to established power. They welcomed the youth-led cultural revolution not because they were secretly planning to subvert it… but because they perceived in it a comrade in their own struggles to revitalise American business and the consumer order generally.
Here we are at the end of the 2010’s, though, and ‘woke’ has now replaced ‘hip’ as the wilfully-coöptable and creatively-destructive potential partner of the modern ad man. I daren’t speak for Frank on this question, but I imagine he would have a field day with Proctor & Gamble’s new ad, because there’s so much there that echoes beat-for-beat the thesis of The Conquest of Cool. The narrator signalling his authenticity with an earnest appeal. The children symbolically bursting through a screen playing an old Gillette TV commercial (notice the subtle self-critique, which adds to the feeling of ‘earnestness’). The old Berkelite solid-state television set playing tellingly-retro cartoons and lowbrow Archie Bunker-style sitcoms. The man with neatly-combed hair, shirt and tie making sexist jokes in front of a studio audience. The male executive in a corporate boardroom ‘mansplaining’ what a woman has just said. Picket fences. Barbecues. Polo shirts. All the tactile and visual touchstones that indicate the 1950s vital-centre mainstream against which the original ‘youth culture’ rebelled. The implicit message is clear: sexism is unhip. It’s square. It’s not cool. It’s something old people do, or else it’s something old people model or condone for young people to copy.

By contrast, the ‘wokeness’ in the ad is signalled through the use of modern technologies – cable news, for example, and smartphone cameras. ‘Woke’ manliness is performed by young people with non-conformist hairdos and neatly (Gillette?)-trimmed hipster beards. ‘Woke’ manliness is young dads stepping out into the yard or struggling against the oncoming crowd at a busy intersection to break up a fight. And the sign-off, of course, is an appeal to the future: ‘the boys of today will be the men of tomorrow.’

I would just take a moment to note that there is very little wrong with the message itself: sexism and violence and bullying are generally things we can agree are bad (or ‘toxic’, if you prefer) and should change. But Frank would have us notice the packaging, the subtext in which and through which that message is carried – and he would point us straight to Girard in doing so. There’s always a mark. There’s always a designated butt, a scapegoat – and in this case, it’s the old people. It’s not even enough to say that the ad misses the mark even though the ‘flight from feeling’ is still the most pronounced and the most violent among the young, because that doesn’t quite address the impulse to pick out and attack a mark in the first place.

There is, after all, something quite ugly about a company that points to old and old-fashioned folks as ‘the problem’ in what is otherwise a laudable anti-bullying message. (Ageism is a thing, guys.) There is something even uglier and more hypocritical in being lectured to about the evils of bullying by a company which ruthlessly exploits slave labour in its supply chains, but does nothing about it because the victims of this particular kind of bullying are invisible in the news cycle this ad glorifies. Of course the ad provoked a backlash: it was designed to. More attention means more airtime. More negative press gives Proctor & Gamble more free opportunities to look like a ‘woke’ rebel and culture-jammer against the ‘squares’ who complain. Again, Thomas Frank, keen cultural observer that he is, noticed this years ago:
Ordinary working-class people are right to hate the culture we live in. They are right to feel they have no power over it, and to notice that it makes them feel inadequate and stupid. The ‘Middle Americans’, after all, are the people the ads and the sitcoms and the movies warn us against. They are the prudish preacher who forbids dancing, the dullard husband who foolishly consumes Brand X, the racist dad who beats his kids, the square cowboy who is gunned down by the alternative cowboy, the stifling family life we are supposed to want to escape, the hardhat who just doesn’t get it. Conservatives are good at pinpointing and magnifying these small but legitimate cultural grievances. What they are wrong about are the forces that create the problem.
Thomas Frank’s now 15-year-old analysis would not be out of place today – with one very notable exception: the last sentence. As Frank himself points out in his more recent book, conservatives are the ones who are wising up, and noticing that in the post-Trump era, the old playbook of social conservatism + markets doesn’t work anymore (not that they ever did so well). Don’t believe me? Ask Tucker Carlson! Now, of course Tucker Carlson weds his critique of unbridled markets and their penchant for destroying the things that social conservatives claim to value (communities, churches, local businesses, agrarian lifestyles, nuclear families) to a chord of Yellow Peril racial animus that is unacceptable. And of course Carlson refuses to posit any sort of real alternative to capitalism. But that doesn’t stop his line of critique from being popular among the same people the left should be reaching. This has been the logic of the backlash from the beginning.

If there is no critique from the left of the sort of performatively-‘woke’ capitalism that Proctor & Gamble is engaging in with this ad, the field will be wide open for the neo-Coughlinist ideology of Tucker Carlson and those who will inevitably follow him. And 2016 is behind us now, so we know what ‘woke’ neoliberalism looks like and sounds like, and more importantly how it performs, when it goes up against an even marginally self-aware appeal to popular anger over such cultural slights. This is not a development to welcome.

16 January 2019

Mouse-ear cress on the moon

Chinese scientists have now successfully sprouted plants on the moon. In earth soil, mind you. And in a sealed oxygenated environment. And sadly, it appears the sprouts did not survive the lunar night cold. But even so: this is a remarkable achievement, and growing plants, possibly even food, is a far healthier achievement than putting the Moon to military uses (in my own humble opinion). Lunar agriculture is no longer science fiction, but has ascended to the realm of the possible.

Even more exciting for me is that, among the plants and animals the Chinese sent up on Chang’e (along with cotton - which sprouted, canola, potatoes, yeast and fruit flies) is Arabidopsis thaliana, also known as mouse-ear cress, a plant with which I became quite familiar and friendly in my college days as a lab technician on an evolutionary biology project spanning two continents and nine different research sites.

But this is me nerding out. Personally, I think this stuff is (pardon the expression) far out, and definitely want to see what China does next with its space programme.

Our father among the saints, Venerable Fursa of Burgh

Saint Fursa of Burgh

Fursa of Burgh, one of Ireland’s an Ceathrar Álainn (‘four comely saints’) and evangelist of the East Saxons, is commemorated today on the Orthodox New Calendar.

Born about 567 to heathen noble parents, Fintan son of Finlog and Gelges daughter of Aed-Finn, Fursa was baptised by Saint Brendan as a youth. He took the tonsure as an adult at the same Clonfert Monastery which Saint Brendan had founded, and took up an intense study of Scripture. He sought after the ascetic and hesychastic disciplines then common among Gaelic monks; and later was ordained as a priestmonk. He founded a monastery at Rathmat, which has been identified with the old church of Killursa, at which he lived a simple and austere ascetic life alongside his brother monks, living in rough wooden dwellings, ploughing, farming and raising cattle.

The missionary work of Saint Fursa did not begin until later. Being both an ascetic and a visionary, he was famously given to see spiritually many things. He began to see visions of the future – both his mission work in England and France, and also the troubles and sicknesses that would visit Ireland after his death. He beheld in these visions both the blessed life in æternity, and the horrors of hell. He was visited both by angels and by unclean powers, who appeared to him arguing over the souls of the departed, and he was given to see the fates of both the righteous and the unrighteous. He saw four fiery trials that awaited the soul after death: the first would burn those given to falsehood; the second those given to greed and who desire worldly riches; the third those who spread discord and offence; and the fourth those who rob and defraud the weak. He was visited also by the souls of departed monastics who lectured him on the nature of the ascetic disciplines, and the pitfalls that await monks. One must fast – first from spite and from untruths; then from meat and wine, but only insofar as that fasting is directed against greed and envy.

At one time, Fursa came upon a man lately dead, who had been a sinner in life. He took something valuable from the dead man’s cote – and the demons, seeing this, scorched him on his shoulder and on his face where he had taken the bauble. However, the angels had seen that Saint Fursa had taken it not out of greed, but in order to let the sinful man’s soul pass through the fire unburdened. When Saint Fursa again appeared to his friends, the burn-marks on his shoulder and chin could be seen.

He left Ireland eventually, but not before wandering as a mendicant preacher around his own country first, healing the sick, exorcising the possessed and preaching the Gospel. He lived also as a hermit on an isolated island for several years before setting off for Wales and then England in the company of two companions and brothers, Saint Foillan and Saint Ultan, where Saint Bede the Venerable picks up his tale. Bede has it that Saint Fursa first came before Saint Sigeberht, King of the East Angles, as a wayfarer desiring to live among the East Angles as a stranger for the sake of Christ. Sigeberht welcomed Fursa with honours, and allowed the latter to preach the Gospel and do his good works among the East Angles, of whom a great many were converted by Fursa’s preaching, teaching, healing and charitable works. Having received the land from the pious king Sigeberht, Saint Fursa founded, together with Foillan and Ultan, a monastic house at Cnobheresburg – nowadays identified with Burgh Castle in Norfolk.

From this monastery, Saint Fursa did much to further and assist the missionary work which had been begun in East Anglia by Saint Felix of Burgundy, who had taken up residency in Suffolk. This he tried to do at some distance, since he shunned earthly glory – but this was difficult to do as Saint Fursa was much beloved by the East Angles who had come to Christ.

At some time after the pious king, Sigeberht, was martyred by the heathen in battle, Saint Fursa and his monastic brothers were threatened by the fierce heathen king Penda of Mercia. Saints Fursa, Ultan and Foillan left England, together with the holy relics and books they had brought with them, for Frankish Neustria. Welcomed by Clovis II of the Franks, Saint Fursa founded a monastery at some small remove from Paris, in Lagny, dedicated to Saint Peter. This monastery flourished as the result of the wonders Saint Fursa worked among the western French people, especially curing the sick and bringing robbers and murderers to repentance through his preaching – and as a result of the gifts bestowed upon it by Clovis II and later by his pious English wife, Bealdhild.

Saint Fursa lived to be a very old man. He reposed in the Lord, dying of a sudden illness while on one of his journeys in Mezerolles. For a full month, his body was not interred, for the thousands who had been brought to Christ and strengthened in Christ through him could bid him farewell. His relics remained incorrupt. When at last he was interred in the Abbey of Saint Peter at Lagny, his relics still produced a sweet fragrance for many years afterward.
Establishing thy monastery in a Roman fortress,
Thou didst teach men that the Orthodox Faith is a true bastion
Against the onslaughts of every evil force, O Father Fursa.
Wherefore pray to God for us,
That we may all be bastions of the Faith
Standing firm against the rising tide of falsehood,
That our souls may be saved.

12 January 2019

Venerable Biscop of Wearmouth, Benedict of the North

Saint Biscop (Baducing), Abbot of Wearmouth

The founder of the Abbey Church of Saint Peter and Saint Paul in Monkwearmouth, Biscop (Baducing) of Wearmouth, is celebrated today on the Orthodox New Calendar, the Roman Catholic and the Anglican calendars. The patron of all English Benedictines, Saint Biscop was also the spiritual father and mentor of the Venerable Bede, whose writings had a profound influence on my own decision to join Orthodoxy. A point of clarification first: Biscop is the saint’s personal name, not his title; upon being tonsured he took the name of Saint Benedict the Venerable of Nursia, whose life and works he strove to his utmost to emulate, and whose religious rule he implanted in all of the monasteries in which he was involved.

Biscop was born in 628 in Northumbria to eldern of high birth; in his youth he was a þegn of Óswiu wæs Æþelferþing king of Northumbria. However, even as a young man of the world, he had no love for fighting or violence, held his lands and his worldly wealth at little value, and would not marry. At the age of twenty-five he was overcome with an urge to go on pilgrimage to visit the Tomb of the Apostles in Rome: a popular pilgrimage destination for English Christians in later generations as well. Along the way, he met another young man – Saint Wilfrid – who accompanied him on his pilgrimage as far as Lyons. This pilgrimage apparently was something of a conversion experience for Biscop. He fell in love with the manner of life among the Roman religious, and upon his return to Northumbria some years later strove to introduce aspects of it among the English.

Biscop made a second pilgrimage to Rome in 665; the æþeling of Northumbria, Ealhfriþ, desired to accompany him on this journey, but his father Óswiu forbade him. In Rome, Biscop made the acquaintance of Pope Vitalian; and on his return he stopped in Lérins, France, where he left the world and took the tonsure. The young þegn stripped himself of all worldly pretensions and made himself humble in the service of God, learning the monastic disciplines and taking upon himself without grumbling the lowest place among the brothers. Having spent two years there, the itch to go again to Old Rome came over him, and thither he went. This time, when he came into the city, he was in the company of another Englishman, Wigheard, who was coming before Pope Vitalian to receive the omophorion of Canterbury. Wigheard was stricken with an illness, however, and died: Vitalian instead appointed Saint Theodore of Tarsus to the position on the advice of Saint Hadrian. Pope Vitalian had the young monk Biscop accompany the saintly Greek hierarch and the Berber monk part of the way back to England as a native guide, and joined them there after an eventful winter. Biscop was made Abbot of St Peter’s in Canterbury, the abbacy which was soon to become Hadrian’s. Again he left after two years for Rome; only this time, he brought back with him books by the Church Fathers, and a great many of them, and returned with them to his home country of Northumbria, where he met with Óswiu’s son Ecgfrið. The new king was quickly impressed by the depth of Biscop’s learning and his great zeal for building the Church, and so gave him a gift of seventy hides of his own land, on which to build the monastery of St Peter at the mouth of the Wear.

Biscop hired masons and glassworkers from Francia – the latter being the first artisans in the country to produce stained glass – and undertook yet another trip to Rome to furnish his new abbey with relics; all manner of books both religious and sæcular, in both Latin and Greek; a monastic teacher of music – in particular, plainchant; and a letter from Pope Saint Agathon securing for his monastery full independence from sæcular political interference. So diligent was Biscop in establishing this monastery that the Divine Liturgy could be celebrated within its walls within a year of the land being blessed. He also brought icons in the Eastern Roman style, and used them to create (as Venerable Bede describes) an iconostasis in the nave of the Church: ‘so that every one who entered the church, even if they could not read, wherever they turned their eyes, might have before them the amiable countenance of Christ and his saints, though it were but in a picture’. Ecgfrið King was so impressed by what Biscop had been able to accomplish that he augmented his earlier gift with a further forty hides of land out of his own store of wealth for an additional monastery, the monastery of St Paul at Jarrow – which would be joined for ever to that of St Peter in Wearmouth. To head this new monastery Saint Biscop chose Ceolfrið, a younger monastic who would be the closest mentor and spiritual father to the young Bede. He also chose Saint Eosterwine, his cousin who likewise had a fervent zeal for the Church, to help him take care of Wearmouth’s daily affairs and to act as prior and co-abbot of the monastery.

Biscop made yet another trip to Rome to acquire more books. When he returned, however, he found to his sorrow that Ecgfrið his king and friend had been slain in battle and his faithful helper Eosterwine had succumbed, along with many of his brother-monks, to a virulent plague. Ecgfrið was succeeded by his Irish half-brother Aldfrið; Saint Eosterwine was replaced as prior at Wearmouth, on the rede of Ceolfrið, with the gentle and knowledgeable deacon Saint Sigefrið. Aldfrið, a man who held learning in high est, had a good working relationship with Saint Biscop; in exchange for two fine silk omophors he had brought from Rome, Aldfrið sold Biscop three hides of ‘sundered land’ bordering Monkwearmouth on the south side of the river – a fishing village which in later times would grow into a city of some prominence.

Saint Biscop’s own time, however, was growing short. Sigefrið was smitten with a deadly wasting illness, and Biscop himself was lain out with a sickness that robbed him, slowly and sorely, of the use of his limbs, and crippled his body for three years – the pain came to be such that he could not sleep. However, he still took it upon himself to celebrate, without complaint, the Divine Liturgy and fulfil all the duties of his abbatial office; and though his body was wasted his mind was kept clear, pure and sane until the very end of his life. His final words to his brethren were to exhort them to remain united – both the Wearmouth Abbey and the Jarrow Abbey; to hold steadfast to the Benedictine Rule and way of life; to preserve and expand the massive library of books and holy writings he had procured from Old Rome; and never to overlook anyone among the monks on account of birth, however rude or poor or lowly, but to follow the man who showed the greatest meekness and spirit of love in his own life.In his last hours, on the fourteenth of January, the brethren of Wearmouth and Jarrow read the Holy Scriptures aloud for him, and also read from the Psalter. Saint Biscop reposed as the brethren were chanting the eighty-second Psalm, which was by Saint Bede taken as a sign that no spiritual enemy had laid hold upon him as he met his earthly journey’s end, but that he departed in blessedness.

This great and zealous Benedict of the European north displayed in his life the most admirable traits of his order. He was dissatisfied with the warlike and acquisitive society into which he had been born, and sought to change its character starting within himself. He was peaceful, meek and kind; he treated the poor (Sigefrið) and rich (Eosterwine) brother-monks alike; he sought learning of all sorts, but especially that holy learning which came from the Church Fathers.

~ ~ ~

So my gentle readers may be wondering by this point (or perhaps not – is it any wonder The Heavy Anglo Orthodox has a thing for English Benedictines?) why I have been highlighting the hagiographies of all these early English, Frankish and German saints: Willibrord, Hilda, Bernward, Éadmund, Eanflæd, Ælfríc, Botwulf, Berin, Eadburga, Sturm, Hildalíþ, Ecgwine, Hadrian and Beorhtwald. Well, the short answer is and deserves to be: because they are Christlike, and because they are ours – as Westerners we ought to be looking to such a paradigm anyway.

But I feel like I can’t and shouldn’t stop there – particularly not after I was led to go back and read the Rule in the spirit of Liz Bruenig. These hagiographies form a pattern, and certain subtle – or perhaps not-so-subtle – golden threads begin to emerge from it to those with eyes to see them. These men and women who took Benedict as their rôle model did indeed set their faces against the prevailing winds of their cultural moment, but it behoves us to consider precisely what kind of cultural moment that was. As Peter Heather’s books on the subject bear witness, the collapse of the Western Roman Empire saw the wealthy and propertied gather up and stockpile as much wealth as they could, build their own private infrastructure, and barricade themselves behind gates to be barred against not only the Vandals and Goths and Huns – the heretics and heathens – raging outside, but also against the poor and dispossessed. Bereft of its legal structural safeguards, in the waning days of Western Rome, the impulse of the patrician (steeped in the legal principles of dominium proprium, the absolute right of Roman man to his lands, his money, his wife and kept women, his children) was to save his own skin and let the world burn.

Following up on a point broached by Sam Rocha a year ago, it was this particular tendency of the Roman sæcular culture in crisis that so thoroughly repulsed the historical Saint Benedict. A careful reading of his Rule shows that the world it tries to build within the walls of his community is a systematic dismantling of the legal principle of dominium proprium and its replacement with a diametrically dissimilar way of living. A Benedictine monk gives up all manner of private and personal property. He gives up any claim of ownership or control over other people – particularly women or children. He gives up his right to eat and drink what he likes, or sleep when he likes. And – this is the most important part – he gives up his self-will and submits to obey Jesus Christ, the Law of Love in the flesh, in the person of the Abbot and in the persons of the poor who appear before him at the abbey door.

That’s the thing about these Benedictines in their monastic communities: they may have a porter, but they are not barred against the sick, the suffering, the sorrowful, the afflicted, the captives, the needy and the poor of the world. It was a direct rebuke to the way the gates of the dominus of the post-collapse Italian latifundium was barred. The monks are there together to do what is needed first to help the least of these, with love and hospitality and real solidarity being their second law (the first being to put their self-will to death and obey God in love). So, listening to the representatives of the Tallahassee DSA talk about the localized, decentralised, caritative, put-yourself-second and do-what-you-have-to ethos behind what they are calling disaster socialism – getting needed supplies, services and free pizza to the victims of flooding when the state wouldn’t help – I couldn’t help but think: that’s our real Benedict option, right there. That’s what we need to be doing to bear witness against the sickness of our culture.

Look closely at the hagiographies, read them with care – not the truncated ones on my blog, but the actual ones written under a discipline by later monastics. And you find that that’s what Abbot Biscop was actually promoting in Northumbria. That’s what Ecgwine was actually preaching in Worcester that angered the rich so much that they sent him to Rome in leg shackles. That’s what Willibrord actually did in the Low Countries when he led his weary, hungry and thirsty companions into the fields of wealthy landowners. That’s what Botwulf in Suffolk and Hilda in Whitby actually did, to the point of giving away all their food stores and goods to the poor when disaster struck. Were they preaching the Gospel of Jesus Christ, God Incarnate, risen from the tomb? Uh, yes. Were they evangelising heathens? You bet. Did they keep the Great Commission at the front of their minds? No question. But these early English monastic saints were often to be seen going out of their way to be generous to the people who needed it most, and using the word of Christ not as a fearful exercise in withdrawal from a hostile and callous culture, but instead as a bold call to leaven it.

And leaven it they did. King David, in the Book of Ecclesiastes, was wise to say that ‘the thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done’. One of the innovations that came with the flooding of the poor and dispossessed into the margins of Empire, was the adoption (particularly along the Upper Rhine) of the open-field system, a communal institutional arrangement adopted in towns and rural settlements which pooled communal land resources so that all the members of the community could use them. Contrary to the conventional wisdom put forward by the Encyclopædia Britannica, this socialistic-looking agrarian system was not an age-old way-things-have-always-been-done, but instead a deliberate institutional response to the agrarian crisis of mounting population pressures on dwindling marginal land resources. The adoption of open-field structures was also no doubt aided, abetted and blessed by the spread of Christianity and the presence of monastic communities like the Benedictines who adopted communal property as a rule, and who served the poor as a rule. The option promoted by the historical Saint Benedict, and Saint Biscop who took his name, was one which emphasised equally a refusal to countenance ‘the way things are’ in the world, and one which sought to transform the world by example.

10 January 2019

For common folk, a champion to be lauded

Archbishop William Laud

I mean, of course, the much-maligned and wrongfully-executed Archbishop William Laud, hailed by his Church the English Cyprian. One of my intellectual and moral heroes from the college days when I was a fervent Anglo-Catholic socialist, given his closeness to Dr Lancelot Andrewes for whom Fr Nicholas Lossky held such esteem and also given his œcumenical interest in Orthodox Christianity, I feel that returning again to the example of his life and works may be fruitful and elucidating.

William Laud, a native of Reading, Berkshire, the son and grandson of clothiers and tailors on both sides of his family, was encouraged at a very young age by both his father and his mother to attend to learning and scholarship. He attended the local grammar school, and then afterwards St John’s College at Oxford, where he pursued his studies in theology, becoming an Anglican priest in 1601, and in 1603 a chaplain to Charles Blount, the eighth Baron Mountjoy and first Earl of Devonshire. It was here that he began to show a marked and righteous hostility toward the monstrous doctrines of Jehan Cauvin. He also displayed very early a deference to the doctrines and ‘high’ modes of worship of the Early Church; in particular its emphasis on physical and tactile beauty as a means of lifting the mind toward God. His views were considered, at Oxford at least, rather gauche. However, Laud s sermons found a readier reception in the East Midlands: he was welcomed as the rector of the Parish of St Nicholas in Stanford, Northamptonshire in 1607, and later became a vicar under Bishop Richard Neile, who gave him strong recommendations and preferments to later posts. He held a number of priestly appointments, including one as president of St John’s.

The lack of diplomatic tact that was to become a criticism of his later career began to show itself very early on. He was, perhaps on account of his scholarly turn of mind, often over-eager to butt heads with people in positions of authority above him, and often all too ready to court enmity in a cause he felt just. For example: he restored the altar-cloth and moved the altar in the Cathedral at Gloucester when he was made dean there in 1616, to conform with earlier practice, but without the Calvinist Bishop of Gloucester Miles Smith’s permission. The Bishop, offended, refused to set foot in Gloucester as long as Laud was dean there. Laud was made a bishop himself – of Saint David’s in Wales – in 1621. In this office, at the behest of King James I, like Dr Andrewes before him, he engaged in polemical exchanges with the English Jesuit John Percy over the latter’s purported attempts at proselytism in the Buckingham household.

In 1625, when Charles I came to the throne, Bishop William Laud seized his moment. The two of them were of a like turn of mind on the subject of Calvinism, and the new king implicitly trusted Laud’s recommendations of Arminian clergymen to positions of prominence, and discommendations of Calvinists. He defended the reputation of Richard Montague before a hostile House of Commons, Montague having published a disputation against the doctrines of Cauvin, and he made an alliance with Thomas Wentworth, the Earl of Strafford, who was a staid sæcular supporter of the King. His ascent under Charles I was swift. He attended the deathbed of Dr Lancelot Andrewes and was made Dean of the Chapel Royal in his place. He was made Bishop of Bath and Wells in 1627, Bishop of London a year later, Chancellor of Oxford University less than a year after that: where he reformed the school regulations, added new buildings, expanded the student body, formally chartered the University printing press, and generally revived a spirit of scholastic paideia at the University. He was at last made Archbishop of Canterbury in 1633.

The ‘official’ history – that is to say, the history of the Protestantising English gentry – is far less kind to Laud than he deserves after this point in his life. Whig historians tend to view him as the author of all manner of overreaching abuses, both of his own as Archbishop of Canterbury, and of the King’s as an advocate of divine right. But he holds a very different significance for the working class. Archbishop Laud, as stated above, was possessed of two things in abundance: stubbornness in the right as he saw it, and a certain disregard for distinctions of rank (apart from the king). Laud believed in the rights of the Church; and he also believed in the equality of all people before God.

He was therefore a fervent, passionate advocate for the œconomic rights of the peasantry, who looked to the King and to the Church for redress against the encroachments of their landlords. Just as Dr Lancelot Andrewes detested usury with a Patristic passion and preached against it at every possible opportunity, so Archbishop William Laud preached against the abuse of the farmer and the theft of the commons. He also enjoined the lower orders of clergy to speak out against the practice, and against the withholding of funds from free and public schools. As a judge in the Court of Star Chamber, Archbishop Laud could be ruthless in bringing the full severity of the law down upon the heads of the rich who flaunted it by ‘seizing almshouses, common lands, the endowments of free schools, portions of the common churchyards, and walling up the ancient ways’. From his standpoint, the landed rich had immunities enough on their own land, and deserved no additional special treatment in a court of law:

Nothing angered Laud so much as the claim of a great man to escape a penalty which would fall on others. Nothing brought him into such disfavour with the great as his refusal to admit that the punishment which had raised no outcry when it was meted out to the weak and helpless should be spared in the case of he powerful and wealthy offender.

As seen, Archbishop Laud was not particularly vicious or in any way remarkable in that regard. The punishments, admittedly brutal, meted out upon William Prynne, Henry Burton and John Bastwick were light indeed in comparison to the sadistic horrors meted out upon religious dissenters by Calvinists on the Continent. What the Puritan gentry of southern England truly could not stomach, was that Laud – a commoner, ‘some base clergyman of mean parentage’ – was placed in authority over them; and moreso that he was a foe of what they conceived of as their ‘property’. As Conrad Noel succinctly put it: ‘Laud stood for the people of England.

In doing so, Archbishop Laud was consciously standing in the long and honoured tradition of the English Church, which stood for the people even as (and largely because) it insisted on a set of specific rights and immunities from sæcular interference. It is easy now to read Laud’s ecclesiology as cæsaropapist, as autocratic or as arbitrary. But seen from the overall context of the Reformation and the recent chaos of the Tudor ‘adjustments’, the good Archbishop was actually hewing to a careful middle road: keeping on the good side of what he considered to be the legitimate sæcular authority on the one hand, and making sure neither the state nor private sæcular actors trampled the traditional rights and immunities of the Church on the other.

Laud’s stubbornness brought a backlash in Calvinist presbyterian Scotland, when he attempted to enforce the use of the standard English Prayer Book and high liturgical worship in that country with the power of the Crown. The result was a rebellion, which the King was afterwards at pains (and at want of funds) to suppress. This led the Parliament – then under control of the Puritan party – to move against Archbishop Laud and have him imprisoned as part of their manœuvring against King Charles. Archbishop was imprisoned on trumped-up charges of treason and ‘popery’ in 1640, and eventually moved to the Tower of London, but his trial was held back for nearly three years, until November of 1643. When it came, the procedure was an utter travesty. Laud was clearly innocent of practically every charge levelled at him, and the witnesses against him were largely compromised – but the House of Commons was determined to do away with him as a rebuke to King Charles.

He was sentenced to be executed by beheading. Though he received a pardon from King Charles I himself, this was ignored by Parliament, and the sentence went forward illegally on the tenth of January, 1645. As William Laud was led to the scaffold, he forgave his killers, and spoke the following prayer: ‘The Lord receive my soul, and have mercy on me, and bless this kingdom with peace and charity, that there may not be this effusion of Christian blood amongst them.’ He is remembered today as a martyr in the churches of the Anglican Communion – and deserves to be remembered by the poor and working-class people of England as the champion of their dignity and equality before God and before the law.

09 January 2019

Saints Hadrian and Beorhtwald of Canterbury

Venerable Hadrian the Abbot and Holy Hierarch Beorhtwald of Canterbury

Two saints, contemporaries and friends, one English and the other African, who nonetheless share the same town and the same feast day – Holy Hadrian the Abbot and Holy Beorhtwald the Bishop, we ask for your prayers today!

When Wigheard, the Archbishop of Canterbury who had been appointed in the wake of the Synod at Whitby, reposed in the Lord in 667, Vitalian, then the Pope of Rome, was tasked with finding a replacement bishop for the Church in England. He approached Hadrian, a humble and self-effacing monk then living in a monastery outside Naples, with an offer for the position – but Hadrian recommended Saint Theodore of Tarsus instead. Pope Vitalian agreed to appoint Saint Theodore to the office, but on the condition that Hadrian accompany him there as legate, given that Hadrian was a skilled seafarer and knew the routes from Africa to Gaul and from there to England. Hearing Pope Vitalian’s reasons, Hadrian accepted this charge.

Saint Theodore and Saint Hadrian were already firm friends, steadfast and spiritually-supportive of one another, when they set out together for England. On their travels through France, they agreed to take separate lodgings for the winter – Saint Theodore would stay in Paris, while Saint Hadrian stayed in Sens and later Meaux. Saint Theodore was allowed to go on his way northward to Kent. However, Saint Hadrian was detained by Ebroin, the evil-minded and paranoid majordomo of Frankish Neustria. The wicked tyrant suspected the Berber monk of being an agent of Emperor Constans II of Eastern Rome (then living in Syracuse), sent to plot against his rule. Saint Hadrian was unjustly held prisoner, and was in peril of his life. However, God so arranged it that Ebroin softened in his paranoid delusions, and he eventually released Hadrian and permitted him to continue on his faring northward.

When Hadrian arrived in Kent, Saint Theodore of Tarsus gifted him the abbacy of St Peter’s in Canterbury, as Pope Vitalian had so arranged it. As Abbot of St Peter’s, Saint Hadrian used his great store of wisdom to make that house of God into a bright and luminous school of theological wisdom, and also of sæcular philosophy and learning in both Greek and Latin, a task in which he was gladly aided by his friend the learned Archbishop of Canterbury. Saint Theodore and Saint Hadrian drew throngs of scholars to Kent. The Abbey of St Peter’s soon became a true school of the liberal arts: not only theology was taught there, but also grammar, rhetoric, logic, mathematics, astronomy and the metrical arts. It was boasted by students of St Peter’s that the pupils of Saint Theodore and Saint Hadrian could speak Greek and Latin both as fluently as they could English! In a later era, King Ælfrǽd the Great of Wessex would complain that though in former ages men of Saint Theodore’s and Saint Hadrian’s stature could be found in England, in his own day he had to send Englishmen of scholarly talents abroad.

Saint Theodore of Tarsus did many more good and holy deeds in England before he reposed in the Lord in September 690, but it would be nearly two years before the infighting among the royal family in Kent would permit another Archbishop to take his place. Another reason for the long delay may have been the ambitions of Saint Wilfrid for the position, which were thwarted by circumstances nearer home in Northumbria. In the end, it was settled to make another local Abbot, Beorhtwald of Saint Mary’s of Reculver, Archbishop of Canterbury. The meek, humble and scholarly Saint Hadrian was likely all too glad not to have been appointed to the position himself, and was content to continue as the Abbot of St Peter’s and headmaster of his flourishing monastic school there – which he did until his own blessed repose on 9 January 710.

For his part, Saint Beorhtwald proved to be a more-than-competent archpastor for the English flock. He oversaw at last the Christianisation of the stubborn South Saxons – the last holdout of heathenry in England; and he also managed to secure tax exemptions for the church from the king of Kent at the time, Wihtred. Beorhtwald also attempted to mediate and broker the old dispute left to him over church offices between Saint Theodore and Saint Wilfrid, while representing his own office and the charge left to him by the saintly Theodore as best he could. In addition, from his letters we can see that Saint Berhtwold encouraged the clergy to buy slaves and set them free, and sæcular owners of slaves to manumit them. Though his own stance against slavery was not as strident as later churchmen in his office, it is still worthy of note that the men of the Church were working against the heathen holdover. Although Beorhtwald reposed in the Lord on 13 January 731, he was commemorated by the Church in England on the same day as his contemporary Saint Hadrian: 9 January.

Venerable Hadrian and Holy Hierarch Beorhtwald of Canterbury, pray to God for us sinners!

08 January 2019

Khanya on Orthodox and Third World politics

Pope Theodoros II of Alexandria visiting Good Hope, South Africa
Image courtesy the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Alexandria

Please do read Khanya today, gentle readers.

Steve Hayes, all-around great writer, has outdone himself this time and put forth a tour de force essay, Third-World Africa — again!, laying his finger firmly on the point of a subject that yours truly has generally only succeeded in skirting around. I have attempted to broach this subject in the past, with pieces such as Preaching non-alignment from the pew and Meekness and generosity are the way out, but have never managed the kind of analytical clarity Mr Hayes brings to bear. I mean, of course, Orthodox church politics throwing Immanuel Wallerstein’s world-systems theory into a sharp theological relief.

Mr Hayes holds forth boldly that we have one of the Orthodox Churches, Constantinople, directly aligning itself with NATO and the capitalist First World, along with the erstwhile bodies in the Ukraine that had splintered away as well as the Uniates. (Yes, Uniatism is very much aligned with the First World.) The Russian Orthodox Church, aligning itself with the government of Russia, seems to be attempting to resurrect the order associated with the Second World. Meanwhile, the rest of the Orthodox Churches, including Antioch, Alexandria and Serbia, reflecting (broadly) the politics of the Arab world, the African continent and the Little Entente / Non-Aligned project of Yugoslavia respectively, are taking the line that whatever political victories might be gained in a contest between Moscow and Constantinople, they are not worth the price of schism in the rest of the Church. They hold no truck with the political machinations of the Russian state, but if push comes to shove they will side with the established canonical church bodies over the newer political ones, just as Jamâl ‘Abd al-Nâsr and Salâma Mûsâ reluctantly sided with the Soviets more of the time than they sided with the West.

Even more interestingly, Mr Hayes cuts straight through the rhetorical fog of nationalistic quasi-remembrance. In what seems to me to be a direct reproach to the incessant and asinine triumphalist identifications of Poroshenko to Vladimir the Great (which ring of the equally-inane comparisons by American evangelicals of Trump to Kuruš), Steve Hayes instead makes two far less-flattering comparisons. Drawing upon the Anglican background which we share, he likens Poroshenko to Henry VIII; and drawing upon his own experience as a South African he likens Poroshenko to Kaiser Matanzima, who broke away from the Methodist Church, banned Methodists from the country and established his own national Methodist Church in Transkei. He also places the modern history of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church in the context of Soviet and post-Soviet history, with some rather unsetting parallels in that direction as well.

In the end, Mr Hayes, as he should and as is meet and right, holds with the views the Patriarch of his own Church, His Divine Beatitude Pope Theodoros of Alexandria. He is concerned primarily with the health of the Church in his own country, and is rightly troubled by the brewing threat of a schism between the Orthodox Church’s First and Second Worlds. He notes that these conflicts do not happen in a vacuum, and that the stresses and scandals it will place at the foot of the Church in the less politically-influential places of the Third World will not be insignificant.

Again, having tried to speak on the topic myself, I have little else to add to this excellent piece. Please do take the time to read the entirety of Mr Hayes’s incisive, erudite and (more to the point) wise essay. There is far more to the Orthodox world than Moscow and Constantinople, and we need to be attentive to that wisdom if we are to cure ourselves of the various imperial hangovers.

05 January 2019

Guess I’m just a good man. Well, I’m alright.

I used to rag on libertarians a lot on this blog. Ragged on ‘em for perverting Christianity, and faking quotes by Saint John Chrysostom. (By the way: Johnny – not a goldbug.) Ragged on ‘em for likewise misreading Confucius. Ragged on their tea party. Ragged on their running Kansas and Wisconsin into the ground. Ragged on their mooning over moonbeams (oh boy did I ever). Ragged on ‘em for being dangerous utopians. Ragged on ‘em for hollowing out academia and inventing social constructivism. And, of course, I ragged on the bespectacled bow-tied breed for generally being the tweaked ones they are.

Though, it’s kind of hard to do nowadays in a post-liberal era. After all, they have no mass constituency to speak of, and their brand is broadly discredited on the American right. Doesn’t seem too seemly, kicking a fedora-tipper with his very fine hat when he’s down and all. Also, being somewhere on the realist spectrum my own self, I actually do tend to agree with libertarian priorities on foreign policy.

But, while I can sympathise with their independent stand on some issues, the recent endorsements given to the new anti-oxygen Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro by Forbes and the Economist in a sudden irrational wave of Chicago Boys nostalgia recently put me in a somewhat less charitable mood. There are a couple of features of libertarianism that require pointing out and, uh, stabbing. You know, politely. Libertarian theory was, after all, instrumental in conceiving, midwifing and nourishing the current political hellscape that modern-day libertarians now claim, like Dr Frankenstein to his monster, to disown and reject. Now, as a representative sample of the historical policies I talk about, I am going to be focussing on the thought of four major post-war libertarian theorists: Friedman, Hayek, von Mises and Rand. (Don’t like it? Don’t think that’s quite fair to your esoteric pet sub-theory of libertarianism or right-anarchism? 去你媽的。 I’m wise to that motte-and-bailey trick. Besides, your boy David Bernstein claims ‘em all.)

Coups and régime change

Libertarians these days generally aren’t fans of military interventions, colour revolutions and US-supported coups abroad. This is one of the points on which I find libertarian bloggers (like Justin Raimondo), think-tanks (like the Cato Institute) and statesmen (like Ron and Rand Paul) the most admirable. Unfortunately, this is also one of the points on which I find libertarians to be the least credible. There is a long and sordid history of the libertarian principle of ‘free trade’ being pushed on unwilling partners down the barrels of guns. Often as not, people with the Whiggish, classical-liberal views that modern-day libertarians lay claim to had a certain idealist, crusading make-the-world-anew mentality that is nowadays the signature of liberal interventionists and neoconservatives. This was a tough habit to shake as recently as the 1960’s, the 1970’s and even the 1990’s.

Most infamously, Milton Friedman and Friedrich Hayek both supported the CIA-funded military coup in Chile that murdered Salvador Allende, as well as the resulting government. Friedman was personally instrumental in stocking the Chilean military with contractors and advisers that not only led the reforms, but actually carried out the coup. These attachés personally trained and educated by Friedman were inculcated in precisely this kind of crusading belief that American institutions and œconomists had a continental duty to spread the gospel of the free market, by force if necessary. Friedrich Hayek, too, would not only engage in two personal tête-à-têtes with Pinochet, but indeed defended his political accomplishments to Western governments and not merely his œconomic ones. In 1979, Ayn Rand supported Israel’s wars of aggression and conquest against its Arabic neighbours, citing Israel as the ‘advanced, technological, civilized country’ and Arabs as ‘almost totally primitive savages’. Note that she too displays this crusading-idealist mentality: ‘Israel [is] bringing industry, intelligence, and modern technology into their stagnation.’ It’s actually a mite stunning in retrospect how, in the early decades of libertarianism’s intellectual ascent, Murray Rothbard stood almost alone in his principled commitment to non-intervention in foreign affairs!

Unfortunately, the crazy 1970’s do not mark the end of the libertarian enthusiasm for régime change. Both at the time and in retrospect, the libertarian right has supported the civil violence orchestrated by Boris Eltsin and supported by the American military and the CIA. The man hailed by the libertarians at the Cato Institute as Russia’s hero during the 1990’s repeatedly secured his hold over the country, with American help, by force and by fraud. The columnists at Reason magazine indeed might do well to note this historical tidbit as they bellyache about Russia’s subsequent allergic reactions to their ideas. Even today, more modest ‘classical-liberal’ outlets still run interference for America’s interventionist foreign policy: for example, when the Economist magazine attributed Yemeni famine and immiseration not to Saudi bombing and American blockades, but instead to a qat habit.

Now, it is perfectly true that the state machinery by which the American government effected these military coups, interventions and régime changes has, with practice, gotten more and more effective and insidious as time has gone on, and the Washington foreign policy consensus has got no problem making all manner of dastardly use of it. The libertarians who nowadays decry all of this architecture and its aggressive use as creeping government totalitarianism are not wrong to do so, but with almost the sole exception of Rothbard, they were asleep at the wheel while it was still manageable and while they still had a non-marginal degree of influence on government processes. And they missed the boat precisely because the American government was implementing policy prescriptions that they wanted. For now, I’m willing to play nice with the libertarians who walk their talk on foreign matters. In the meanwhile, though, pardon me if I take the present-day libertarian penchant for non-interventionist foreign policy with a grain of salt.

Big money in politics

Libertarians pretty well shot themselves in the foot here. A common line among libertarians is that they endorse ‘capitalism’ but not ‘crony capitalism’. Course, that’s never properly been true because, going back to the days of the first joint-stock company charters and the first stock exchanges, all capitalism has been primarily driven by access to governments and their power. But nowhere is it observably more false than in the oh-so-precious libertarian attitude toward campaign finance.

Libertarians conveniently turn the other way whenever considerations on the corruptions of political power take the form of money. Friedman himself considered the matter a simple one of free speech, with money being equivalent to speech; Hayek’s viewpoint was a bit more pessimistic but he came to the same conclusion: whatever the distortions that private money could introduce into politics, they couldn’t possibly be as detrimental as the applications of political power itself. Ayn Rand, utter sociopath that she was, doubled down on this latter point of Hayek’s and said that the concept of the public interest itself was to blame for corruption, and that any attempts to limit it were doomed to failure as long as altruism existed. Some of the more radical anarcho-capitalists like von Mises are utterly incapable of seeing an intrinsic problem with private ‘gifts’ between private citizens, even if those citizens happen to be in capacities of public trust.

For all pragmatic purposes, then, libertarians line up solidly behind big money on this question. There’s something twistedly admirable about Gary Johnson supporting the Citizens United decision even though it directly hurts his electoral chances and aids the major established parties. For the most part, that’s a strategy that’s worked for pushing libertarian policies within those established parties because – as mentioned above – the data show fairly consistently that the donor class as a whole is the class most favourable to libertarian ideas.

Even so, the donor class are not ideologues, and they aren’t particularly beholden to ideas so much as they are to… well, power interests. So what happens when the political winds shift and the donor class starts pulling in favour of, say, immigration restrictions? Or mass surveillance? Or police militarisation (after all, whose interests are they protecting)? Libertarian ideology taken in its pure form starts working against practical libertarian policy objectives, precisely because that ideology is unable to reckon, on this question, with money equating to power instead of speech.

On a related note: given how insistent ‘classical liberals’ tend to be in their saner moments on the law of unintended consequences, it’s rather fascinating that they ignore that law wholesale when it comes to the policy ramifications of decoupling government funding from programmatic objectives. Of course, most libertarians – Friedman and Hayek in particular – would say that, in an ideal world, the only programmatic objectives of government would be territorial defence and a justice system to enforce contracts. But the problem with basing policy on ideals is that it never works wholly according to the dictates of the ideal.

Now, Friedman and Hayek both claimed themselves apprehensive about the 1981 Reagan tax cuts and the way they were implemented. In the end, those apprehensions didn’t stop Friedman from supporting the tax cuts as they happened, as he himself noted in retrospect in 1999. (Remember that Friedman himself was a key adviser to the Reagan campaign.) But their first instincts were correct. The tax cuts were not tailored to specific programmatic objectives; thus they wound up ballooning government spending and creating shiny new opportunities for private cash to grease public fingers. Polanyi said it best: all capitalism is crony, or goes that way left to its own long enough.

The opioid crisis: Prohibition inverted

What I’m gonna say here isn’t news. I mean, Lin Zexu could have told you this back 175 years ago. But one of the things that our current opioid epidemic has proven to those of us have eyes, is that simply making a market in legal drugs doesn’t reduce the social harms associated with those drugs, and indeed might even create them. It really is a crisis, by the way: we have 115 people overdosing on legal opioids and over 1,000 ER visits caused by opioid abuse every day. A full quarter of patients with legal prescriptions for fentanyl and other synthetic opiate painkillers misuse them, despite the assurances of pharmaceutical companies back in the ‘90’s that such misuses would not occur. There is evidence that legal opioids are a gateway to heroin abuse. Opioid abuse is costing our œconomy something to the tune of $80 billion every year, and creating a spike in violent and property crime.

Libertarians (following all four of their gurus Friedman, Rand, von Mises and Hayek) have fought tooth-and-nail to end the ‘war on drugs’, which they basically see as a spectre of Prohibition. Libertarians love to point to the failed American experiment in banning alcohol, and for good reason. Prohibition really did waste shiploads of cash money enforcing the ban on alcohol; it really did make black markets in alcohol more profitable; it really did turn more ordinary people into criminals; and it really did turn already-criminal profiteers in alcohol more dangerous. As they see it, the ‘war on drugs’ generates similar public waste, retrenches violent crime associated with illegal drugs, and crowds out legal companies who would render a ‘safer’ product if the drugs were legal.

Here’s how it is, though. The libertarians basically got one part of their dearest wish fulfilled back in the Clinton years with these prescription painkillers. Those tidy, shiny, legal, for-profit, tax-paying companies (Johnson & Johnson, Purdue Pharma, Endo) that libertarians all assure us would reduce the social harms associated with consumption of illegal drugs? They lobbied the FDA for the legal right to long-term painkiller prescriptions to patients. And the FDA complied: opium-derived drugs, completely legal. And then – without any prompting from the government – these same pharma companies started encouraging doctors to over-prescribe them. No crime, organised or contrary-wise, had ever been involved in the sale of these synthetic painkillers before their appearance on the Rx counter. No black market existed. But these for-profit companies – which libertarians still basically see as the silver bullet to the drug problem – conjured up a widespread addiction crisis of their very own, complete with all the œconomic and social harms libertarians rightly attribute to the original Prohibition.

Once an addiction problem already exists, getting rid of it is another matter – and there I tend to be more sympathetic to certain libertarian arguments about the ‘War on Drugs’ not working as it should. But clearly legalising all drugs, the way libertarians believe should be done on principle, is not the answer if you’re looking to minimise the harms associated with drug use. And the people most like to say so are the people who suffer from it.

The nudgey dictatorialism of ‘sound œconomic principles’

All the foregoing is just so much pussyfooting around the real heart of the matter. And that’s that libertarianism claims to be a philosophy of liberty, but when it comes to defending its policy preferences, it incessantly retreats to the fiction of ‘sound œconomic principles’ and ‘œconomic laws’. Problem with ‘principles’ and ‘laws’ sound like they’re coming from a hard science (when œconomics is no such thing), is they tend to reduce the human being down to a series of quantifiable desires and consequentialist calculations between them. Twice two is four. Every time.

The libertarian is enough of a true believer in the powers of ratiocination, in the ramifications of the calculation, in the brazen law of commerce, that it won’t occur to them that people could come to some other answer than four. That’s the entire point of Austrian ‘praxeology, which claims oracular predictive power for itself on the basis of individual-level rational calculation. The ‘œconomic consensus’ around which congealed the rather more amorphous ideological axioms of neoliberalism, however, is not quite so trusting. The newer breed of Chicago Boys share the libertarian faith in the rationality of markets and the brazen law of commerce, but generally don’t trust the rationality of market actors, who have to be… nudged, prodded, incentivised to put down ‘twice two is four’. You don’t have to make laws or threats to get folk to comply; you just have to lay down a path of least resistance.

Now, if these champions of œconomism – even the savvier, more cynical behaviouralist kind – actually read Dostoevsky or other literary students of human nature ‘stead of œcon textbooks, they’d see the problem with that. These ‘œconomic laws’ don’t and can’t account for either the individual or the mass instances of human perversity that’ll hold ‘twice two is five’. And it was just such an instance of mass human perversity that got us into our current political dilemma. As I’ve said, libertarians and neoliberals are not particularly identical in their political outlook, but they both hold to the ironclad logic of ‘twice two is four’ and can’t see how anyone could think otherwise. Problem is, folks who wind up on the wrong side of that equation often enough will end up writing ‘twice two is five’ with their votes – and with their middle fingers. Libertarians simply don’t have the conceptual tools or the will to answer these instances when people go against their own rational interests, which is near front among the reasons why they’re in such a pickle these days.

The principle of self-own-ership

Again, this is me just pointing out the self-inflicted wounds that libertarian idealism has garnered over the past five decades – whether it’s their utopian vision pitting itself against their immediate policy goals, or their cynical willingness to toy around with not-too-friendly private forces basically coming back to bite them in the end. Am I enjoying this? Little bit. Not too much, though, given the seriousness of some of the problems I just highlighted.

As I said above, all of the foregoing may look like an extended exercise in kicking the advocates of a largely-beaten and -discredited political philosophy when they’re down. And to a certain degree, it’s just that. But, as a great fictional libertarian-minded Bat Durston once said: ‘Mercy is the mark of a great man. Guess I’m just a good man. … Well, I’m alright.