29 July 2016

A venerable tradition honoured

Lord knows I do not always agree with The Nation magazine and its editorial approach. On cultural and sexual politics particularly, they follow the usual nominalist line common among the American liberal left, which often leads to the miseries of social atomism, or at worst to truly profound injustices. But when it comes to foreign policy and gauging the range of acceptable opinion in the press, The Nation has a long and venerable tradition of opposition to the fear-and-loathing yellow journalism which precedes calls to war, and to the domestic abuses of the public sphere of which Joe McCarthy remains the prevailing symbol, which is highly laudable, which they are right to take pride in, and which I wish more of our normally subservient and uncritical media outlets would emulate.

The recent article by The Editors stands in firm and fine continuity with this tradition, and the fact that they are aiming their guns solidly against their own political tribe this time makes their stand all the braver. The ‘Kremlin-bait[ing]’ of the Republicans ‘in lieu of reasoned argument and factual critique’ by such partizan actors as Paul Krugman, Jeffrey Goldberg and Jonathan Chait, is in their view utterly reprehensible, as a tactic which sees fit ‘to adopt the pernicious language of McCarthyism is to turn our backs on the best traditions of our country in favor of the worst’. Though no fans of Donald J Trump, they nonetheless defend him against the charges of un-Americanism which could, with justice, be turned back at any time on the current administration, which has (intermittently, imperfectly and with precious little commitment) sought détente rather than escalation and confrontation with Russia under Putin.

This kind of moral clarity, particularly in an election year when our nation’s damnable tribalism takes on a fever pitch and critical faculties of every sort go flying out the window, is immensely valuable and to be treasured. Particularly in an age where news media are vulnerable to what Wang Hui calls ‘partification’ – that is, taking on the aspects of a partizan interest group rather than being a voice for the common good in the public sphere – this kind of reflective critique is much-needed. Long life to The Nation and her Editors!

Remembering Holy Martyr Eustace of Mtskheta

I’m a big fan of Eustace of Mtskheta for several reasons. Firstly, he was a young working-class man who lived a normal life: a thirty-year-old cobbler and member of the cobblers’ guild, who settled down in Mtskheta, married a Georgian woman, adopted the Georgian faith and raised a family. Secondly, even though he well and truly ‘went native’, he was still a Persian – by birth named Gvirobandak – and even the story of his conversion and martyrdom shows a distinctly Iranian genius for seeking out the ‘holy’, the ‘fragrant’, the ‘excellent’ and the ‘beautiful’, the same love of truth which the Iranian magi imparted to the first Greek philosophers, and which led these former Zoroastrians to Christ. One version of the story has it that Eustace was given the opportunity to flee from his fellow cobblers, but he refused – both out of loyalty to his comrades and to his guild, and because he remembered in the Gospel that ‘he who confesses me before men, I will confess also before my Father which is in Heaven; and whoever denies me before men, him I will deny also before my Father which is in Heaven’.

At any rate, here follows the excerpt of the life of Holy Martyr Eustace of Mtskheta, from Lives of the Georgian Saints:
Saint Evstati, a Persian by descent, was a fire-worshipper named Gvirobandak prior to his baptism into the Christian faith. When he arrived in Georgia and settled in Mtskheta, he was deeply drawn to the morals and traditions of the Georgian people, and he resolved to convert to Christianity. His decision entailed a great risk, as the Persians dominated eastern Georgia, persecuting Christians and forcing all to worship fire, as they did. Catholicos Samoel himself baptised Gvirobandak and called him Evstati. The new convert soon married a Georgian woman and was fully assimilated into Georgian society and the life of the Church.

Once the Persians who were occupying Mtskheta invited Evstati to a celebration, but he declined, saying, ‘I am stamped with the seal of Christ and far removed from every darkness!’

After the celebration the fire-worshippers reported Evstati to Ustam, the chief of the Mtskheta fortress. The chief summoned Evstati and threatened him, saying, ‘You will not remain a Christian without punishment. If you do not voluntarily turn back from this way of misfortune, severe tortures will await you!’

Saint Evstati calmly answered him, saying, ‘For the sake of Christ I am prepared to endure not only torture but even death itself with rejoicing!’

Since he himself did not have the authority to punish Evstati, Ustam sent the accused to the
marzban Arvand Gušnasp. Then the informers appeared again before Ustam and reported that seven more fire-worshippers had converted to Christianity. All eight of them were bound in chains and escorted to Tbilisi.

The furious
marzban ordered his servants to shave the captives’ heads and beards, bore holes in their noses, hang weights round their necks, fetter their bodies in chains and cast them into prison. Anyone who denied Christ was to be pardoned. Two of the victims, Baxdiad and Panagušnasp, could not bear the suffering and denied Christ. The marzban freed them, while the six holy men—Gušnaki, Evstati, Borzo, Perozak, Zarmil and Stepane—remained in confinement.

Six months later Arvand Gušnasp was summoned to Persia, so Catholicos Samoel, the chieftain Grigol of Mtskheta and the nobleman Aršuša took advantage of the opportunity and requested that he release the imprisoned Persian Christians. Arvand Gušnasp yielded to the request of the Georgian dignitaries, but warned that the Christian converts would soon meet their deaths.

Meanwhile, the betrayer Baxdiad fell ill with epilepsy and died, while Panagušnasp lived on in terrible poverty.

Three years laater Vežan Buzmir was appointed the new
marzban of Kartli, and the pagan priests again reported on Saints Evstati’s and Stepane’s conversion. Saint Evstati asked to see his family and said to them, ‘Farewell, for I am not destined to return home again. I will not betray Christ, and for this they will not forgive me. Imprisonment and beheading will await me in Tbilisi. My remains will be brought here according to God’s will.’

Evstati and Stepane were escorted to the new
marzban, and Evstati declared before him that he would not deny Christ. The enraged marzban ordered that he be cast into prison and that his head be chopped off that night and his body thrown behind the fortress wall, to be torn to pieces by the birds. As directed, the marzban’s servants beheaded the saint and cast his body into the abyss behind the fortress wall.

But a group of faithful Christians located Saint Evstati’s body and carried it in secret to Mtskheta. Catholicos Samoel met the holy relics when they arrived, and with great honour they were buried in Svetitskhoveli Cathedral under the altar table.
Rightly hast thou acquired thine honourable name,
O Invincible martyr Eustace!
Cease not to protect those who sing unto thee!

23 July 2016

Russia, China and America 2016

Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping

I have been having discussions in several venues today, who seem convinced – deploying an ironically nationalistic logic – that the Russians and the Chinese both want Trump to win, and want Clinton to lose, because Trump will weaken the American military and international prestige. For support they pointed to articles like this one by Harriet Sinclair, and op-eds like this one by Tim Mak. But is either one actually the case?

The short answer is no. On the Russian side, President Vladimir Putin explicitly declined to endorse either of the candidates in the American election when pressed on the question by Fareed Zakaria, citing the ‘colourful’ (‘яркий’) comment Putin had made earlier about Trump. Putin, however, replied on-record, in public, that ‘we… do not interfere into the internal political processes of other countries, especially the US’; he did say that he ‘did note’ and ‘welcome’ the desire to ‘restore relations with Russia’. On the Chinese side, even though some news outlets and commentators associated with state media like the People’s Daily and Xinhua have spoken up in support of Trump, the only statement on US elections to come from the CCP directly was a comment by Finance Minister Lou Jiwei to the effect that Trump’s economic and trade policies toward China are ‘irrational’. Indeed, the official organs of the Chinese government have actually chastised print media like the Global Times for publishing pro-Trump editorials. In that sense, the Chinese government is simply doing what it has always done in American election years: watching cautiously from the sidelines and speaking up only where its own interests are threatened.

The longer and more involved answer goes thus. Both Russia and China indeed are watching American elections with interest, for obvious reasons. But their opinions of the candidates simply don’t fall into such cut-and-dried attitudes. It’s not that hard to figure that Chinese rightists and liberals hate Trump because he is wrecking their idealised notion of what American democracy is supposed to achieve. As Eric X Li puts it in an uncharacteristically-nuanced article on Foreign Affairs: ‘they despise Trump, but they can’t quite bring themselves to say that the moneyed elites are right and the people are wrong – such an admission would not help them make their case for Western-style democracy in China’.

On the other hand, Eric Li notes that on the leftist, traditional, pro-government side of Chinese politics, the attitudes toward Trump are a little bit harder to gauge. On the one hand, Chinese patriots are – also for obvious reasons – repulsed by his consistently anti-China rhetoric, with Dai Xu (a nationalist and PLA officer) calling Trump an ‘imperialist’, a ‘war-monger’, even an ‘American Hitler’. On the other hand, Dr. Jin Canrong of Renmin University of China in Beijing, has cited Trump as a ‘pragmatist’ whom the Chinese government can work with. Whether Dai Xu’s or Jin Canrong’s attitudes win the day on the Chinese left remains to be seen; as with many other groups both inside and outside the United States, Trump simply appears to be too much of an unknown factor.

Which is probably one of the reasons why so many Russians are noncommittal about the 2016 elections. One poll by Interfax, cited with a misleading headline by the International Business Times, noted that Trump supporters in Russia outnumber Clinton supporters by a factor of three – 28 per cent against 9 per cent. The same poll found that about equal numbers of Russians hold negative (23 per cent) and positive (22 per cent) views of Trump.

What consistently gets left unsaid in Anglo-American citations of this poll, is that fully 63 per cent of the Russian people have no preference for either candidate! (Of course, saying so doesn’t exactly grab headlines in the West, which is part of the problem.) But, as something of a Russia-watcher, here is my theory for why the numbers break down the way they do. I’m borrowing something of Anatoly Karlin’s analysis of Russian politics for my own purposes.

Russian liberals, as even they themselves will claim, make up only ten or so per cent of the Russian electorate. The reason that the Russian electorate has soured so heavily on liberalism as a comprehensive economic and political doctrine has to be traced back to the disaster of shock therapy, which resulted in the deaths of millions of Russians by alcoholism, suicide, disease or malnutrition. Though a handful of Russians who managed to benefit by these reforms – and others, too young or too sheltered to remember them – still champion liberal market and political reforms as a package deal (notably the political tendency associated with Yabloko, Parnas, SPS and other right-liberal parties), most Russians simply won’t drink that Kool-Aid anymore. Russians see Bill Clinton in particular, who turned the liberal reforms in Russia into a kind of crusade, as a bête noire, though they can hardly have a higher opinion of Hillary, who has been a consistent supporter of both her husband’s economic and foreign policies vis-à-vis Russia, and who has continued in her capacity as a senator to support indirect interventions in Georgia and the Ukraine. Only to that particular privileged segment of the Russian populace which was sheltered from the negative effects of shock therapy, and which holds out hope for the promises of the ‘90’s reforms, would Clinton have any appeal.

Trump’s support in Russia follows a similar pattern. Though it’s a little bit harder to draw a line between the two, between 20 and 30 per cent of Russians fall into the camp of ideological nationalism, whether of the left or the right. Between them, the opposition politicians Gennady Zyuganov (of the retro-Soviet KPRF) and Vladimir Zhirinovsky (of the xenophobic right-wing LDPR) carry between 20 and 30 per cent of the vote in any given legislative election. Comparisons between Trump and Zhirinovsky are particularly commonplace, and are even quoted (though you have to wade through a lot of Russophobic tripe to get to the quote) in Politico. They see in Trump the same sort of crass, vulgar, flamboyant self-displays of megalomania (of the sort that Il’in warned against), that they will see at the rallies against immigration, and, like Dugin, they connect to that; in addition, they may latch on to some of Trump’s statements about NATO and wanting to invest in Russia, and believe that he must be one of them.

But… turning to the silent majority. The 63 per cent from that Interfax poll that get ignored or glossed over in the Western headlines.

This, I believe (and not without some justification given the above analysis), is the selfsame silent majority that, in election after election, returns in excess of 55 per cent of the vote to the cautious, realist, non-neoliberal, decidedly un-flamboyant United Russia party, and to President Putin personally (who is neither a rabble-rouser nor a megalomaniac). The silent majority among whom Anatoly Karlin numbers himself, and calls ‘the sceptical Russophiles’, who love their country with realistic eyes, who are under no illusions about the ‘bittersweet glories’ and the ‘traumatic infamies’ of their past, who don’t keen to ideology, who see Russia as following its own path, albeit one with non-exclusive implications. It is the tendency that Karlin associates historically with the political poetry of Fyodor Tyutchev, flavoured by a tinge of Romanticism and rebellion against one-sided rationalism, but still grounded enough to be rooted in life as such. They will rally around the banner when they are under a legitimate threat, but they are neither seduced by the siren call of ideology nor by the antics of a cult of personality. They look at the two options afforded by the West and – like Kireevsky and Khomyakov before them – reject both in favour of their own.

EDIT (29 July): Two articles are well worth reading on the subject, and with a couple of differences in emphasis they seem to be saying much the same thing as I am here. The first is by Olga Kuzmina, who demolishes the argument from the linguistic view, that Putin had any kind of newsworthy praise for Trump, and at the same time highlighted the differences between Putin’s rhetorical restraint and the utter lack of it on Trump’s part. The second, at the National Interest, is by Maksim Suchkov, who analyses the popular feeling toward both candidates. Even though he clearly doesn’t think much of the comparison between Trump and Zhirik, he still criticises the American focus on Trump’s supposed Russia ties as both vapid and wrongly-aimed. Do give both articles a careful read, gentle readers!

22 July 2016

A few words on Ban Zhao

Ban Zhao 班昭

The Bans of the Han Dynasty were a family of notable literati: Ban Biao was a noted historian, and his eldest son Ban Gu and his youngest daughter Ban Zhao followed in his footsteps. The family project was an innovative history: the first true dynastic history, which developed out of Ban Biao’s work of appending the record of the ‘later traditions’ 后传 to Sima Qian’s Shiji. Two of his children, Ban Gu and Ban Zhao, continued this work and eventually crafted the first true dynastic history (jizhuanti 纪传体) in China.

Still, even though they drew upon the work of Sima Qian, they had a number of differences of conviction with the Grand Historian. Contra the assertions of Roderick Long, who wants to situate the pro-mercantile leanings and proto-libertarianism of Sima Qian and the Shiji in the main of the Confucian tradition, Michael Gibbs Hill writes of Sima Qian’s work that ‘[t]his particular set of biographies ran counter to a strain in early Chinese thought that viewed merchants and commerce with suspicion’. Even though the Ban family were indebted to Sima Qian’s format in historical writing, both Ban Gu and Ban Zhao clearly held with the early Chinese suspicion of the mercantile profession, clearly preferring the ‘poor and lowly’, but virtuous, artisan and farming classes. Hill also writes of the attitude Ban Gu and Ban Zhao showed to Sima Qian and to the controversial mercantile, proto-capitalist tendency his ‘Biographies of Merchants’ represented:
The next dynastic history, the History of the Former Han (Han Shu 汉书), mostly assembled by Ban Gu 班固 (32-92 CE) and Ban Zhao 班昭 (48-112 CE), took a dim view of Sima Qian’s praise for merchants. Its biography of Sima rebuked him for “praising wealth and power while shaming the poor and lowly”. It then produced its own “Biographies of Merchants”, adding a long section on ancient history that linked the rise of commerce with a decline in rites and government. These new biographies of merchants integrated much of the information found in Sima Qian’s Records into its own main text, but, in a classic example of rewriting and “transmitting” the historical record with an ideological bent, intervened regularly to blame merchants and traders for many of the troubles seen in history and in contemporary society. The History of the Former Han set the model for all subsequent dynastic histories, which followed its format; the condemnation it issued for “Biographies of Merchants” was apparently so powerful that no subsequent dynastic history reproduced this section.
Note that this distrust of the profit motive evinced by Ban Gu and Ban Zhao, and of trade without production of value, is an attitude which is consistent with Mencius as well as with the non-Mencian classicist Dong Zhongshu, representing both the ‘mind Confucian’ and the ‘institutional Confucian’ canons. The historiography of the Ban family was clearly highly influential in restoring the radically virtue-oriented, producerist and pro-peasant tenor of Confucian thought, and if Hill’s reading of the history is correct, they seem to have done it with such aplomb that it became taken for common sense in subsequent eras.

In addition to this, Ban Zhao’s virtue-ethical radicalism extended also to the realm of gender. Though it is perhaps unfair and anachronistic to consider a historical figure by the categories applied in another age, many modern scholars have already taken to describing the well-educated, historically-astute Ban Zhao as a sort of proto-feminist. In this vein, it seems worthwhile to note that the sort of feminism that she espouses in her Lessons for Women 《女诫》 is a kind of difference feminism (as opposed to an equity feminism): her main arguments seek to provide grounds for women to cultivate their own virtues - such as humility, loyalty, filial piety, compassion, circumspection and obedience - in a way which befit themselves rather than deferring to the norms of behaviour which governed men. It is interesting to note that Ban Zhao, who was unfortunately widowed at a young age, nevertheless managed to retain a personal reputation both for her high personal virtue and her intellectual acumen, and as her tutor, she grew very close in the confidence of Han Empress-Dowager Deng Sui, even becoming the powerful royal’s most trusted friend. Deng Sui, advised by Ban Zhao, governed wisely and prudently as the power behind the throne. She was able to avert the natural disasters and end the foreign wars that visited her regency, lowered taxes on outlying lands, and also carried out much-needed reforms to combat corruption and waste at the court, and to ameliorate abuses in the Han penal codes.

The rich tradition of Confucianism, and the Han Dynasty it seems in particular, is replete with such examples of cultural conservatives whose thought turns out to have radical implications, whether pro-poor or pro-woman, or simply personalist and virtue-ethical. That makes the subject always a delight to explore!

EDIT (28 October 2017): Here is a full translation of the passage where Ban Gu (and Ban Zhao also) offer some pointed criticisms of Sima Qian in the Book of Han. Not only for his treatment of merchants, it seems, but also for his Huang-Lao proto-Daoist sympathies and his treatment of knights-errant (游侠).

When we come to [Sima Qian’s] selection from the classics and use of commentaries, he divides and scatters the affairs concerning the various schools, and there is a great deal that is sketchy and unreliable, and sometimes there are contradictions. But such was his diligence that what he wades through and hunts down is comprehensive, penetrating the classics and the commentaries, and galloping from the ancient to the present, from the beginning to the end several thousand years [later]. However, his judgements of right and wrong are quite in error with regard to the Sage. In his discussions of great principles, he puts Huang-Lao first and the Six Classics afterward. In giving a place to wandering knights, he discredits retired scholars and promotes debauched heroes. In writing of ‘The Increasing of Goods’, he esteems those who profit from advantageous situations and heaps shame on the lowly and the poor. These are his weaknesses!

17 July 2016

Of pews, populism and Pobedonostsev

We all stand together…

Konstantin Petrovich Pobedonostsev – the Ober-Procurator of the Holy Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church; that éminence grise of Russian statecraft; that mighty pillar of traditional conservatism, reaction and Russian autocracy – is in fact a much more complicated figure than many are willing to credit him. As much as he admires England elsewhere for its deeply-rooted, institutional, practically apolitical commitment to its own traditions (as, indeed, many Slavophils before him had done), it is still with an archly populist eye that he observes the Church of England:
Enter an English church and watch the congregation. It is devout; solemn it may be, but it is a congregation of ‘ladies and gentlemen’, each with a place specially reserved; the rich in separate and embellished pews, like the boxes of an opera-house… We cannot help thinking that this church is merely a reunion of people in society, and that there is place in it only for what society calls ‘the respectable’. All use their prayer-books, but each has his own, which makes it plain that he wishes to be alone before God, and in no way to sacrifice his individuality… In former times, more particularly in the provinces, the pews were constructed with closed partitions, so that the occupant might pray in peace, alone, and undisturbed by any neighbour. How plainly these dispositions reveal the history of a feudal society, and even the history of the Reformation in England! ‘Nobility and gentry’ lead in all, because they possess and appropriate all. All is bought by conquest, even the right to sit in church… is it not strange that in England the masses have been forced to conquer in battle what among us has always been free as the air we breathe?
And then note how he defends – albeit in terms already somewhat compromised by the ground he is obliged to take contra a still largely-Westernised Russian gentry with its own pretensions – the practice of the Orthodox Church, built without these separate pews, where rich and poor must stand together as equals, often literally shoulder-to-shoulder! And note that he places special emphasis on the commonality of the Church, precisely that lack of individuation and separation from each other that defines even the practices of the churches under the influence of the Reformation:
From its dawn to the present day our Church has been the church of the people, inspired by love, and all-embracing, without distinction of class. The faith has sustained our peoples in the day of privation and calamity, and one thing only can sustain, strengthen, and regenerate them, and that is faith, the faith of the Church alone. Our people is reproached with ignorance in its religion; its faith, we are told, is defiled by superstition; it suffers from corrupt and wicked practices; its clergy is rude, inactive, ignorant, and oppressed, without influence on its flocks… What then is essential? The love of the people for its Church, the conception of the Church as a common possession, a congregation common in all things, the total absence of social distinctions, the communion of the people with the ministers of the Church, sprung from the people, and differing neither in manner of life, in virtues, nor in failings, who stand and fall with their flocks. This is a soil which would bring forth rich fruits with good cultivation, with less concern for the amelioration of life than the bettering of the soul, with less desire that the number of churches exceed not the needs of the people than that those needs shall not remain unsatisfied.
Liturgically- and structurally-speaking, he only distinction which is preserved in the Orthodox Church is that of the Royal Doors. The people themselves before the Doors are of equal consideration, all considering themselves to be ‘chief among sinners’; the priest himself is distinguished from us, only by his being a conduit for the Holy Gifts at the Altar behind the Doors, the real presence of Christ among the people.

I do not say these things out of a desire to offend my brothers and sisters in the Episcopal Churches where I once worshipped, or indeed anyone who worships where there happen to be pews. Indeed, these reflections are not about them, and they have their own trajectories and their own reasons for keeping to their own ways of doing things. I understand this, and if this practice works for them, so much the better for them. Instead I offer this observation from an Orthodox ‘insider’ of a past generation, for the benefit of other Orthodox believers who may be wont to adopt certain Western, legalistic, gentrified styles of thinking, out of a desire to believe that these are ‘traditional’ and to be kept pure of the stains of the unkempt masses.

When Pobedonostsev says that ‘[b]y nature we are much inclined to be infatuated with beauty of form, with organisation, with the external perfection of things’, he has in his sights not Westerners but his own Russian compatriots, who are stricken by what Iranian social critic Jalal al-e-Ahmad called غربزدگی (gharbzadegi: ‘Westitis’), who admire and want to imitate what they see as the liveliness and the modernity of the Western religious traditions. But that same observation is actually just as easily turned on some of us Western converts to Orthodoxy, who are perhaps over-enamoured by the idea of hierarchy that we see in the upper echelons, and want to hold to that idea of hierarchy for its own sake, being ‘infatuated with its beauty of form’. This was the spiritual tendency of Konstantin Leont’ev, for example. But, as good a man and as deep a thinker as Leont’ev was, as Pobedonostsev (and also, say, Dostoevsky and Mother Maria Skobtsova) would be quick to point out, there is a deep spiritual danger in this approach, that of forgetting ‘what is essential’, which some of the more reactionary Orthodox converts might fail to grasp, because they fear a possible plebeian taint more than they love God.

But such a fear has no place with us, no grounds in our midst, because there are no pews among us. (Even among the Orthodox Churches which may have the misfortune of physical pews, there are no spiritual pews ranking believers back to front, marking those with ‘reserved seats’ from those without!) God is among the least of us, and when we partake of His body and His blood, there is no distinction: the True Light shines upon us all; the Heavenly Spirit touches us all; the True Faith finds us all. That this was recognised by the paragon of Russian reaction himself, should go some way toward showing its truth for those of us who are still young in the faith.

11 July 2016

The ‘structure’ of ancestral sin

Our Father among the Saints, Gregorios of Nyssa

In light of the recent tragic and infuriating news (some of it in my own area) and the dust-up on race and policing which has been brought up in its wake, I’ve been following a recent conversation on Facebook about the nature of oppression and whether or not it can be considered ‘structural’. Oddly enough, the two participants were both Orthodox, and both were probably better-versed in theology than I am. But it struck me that such a conversation, even about such ‘secular’ matters as racial injustice in modern America, needs to be backgrounded in a valid understanding of ‘oppression’. When we are speaking about oppression we are actually speaking about the pursuit and accumulation of secular power (whether political or social or economic) at the expense of others – at the root of which is a blindness, an αμαρτία, which looks away from God and sets its sights on something lower. When we are speaking about oppression of any sort, we are speaking about sin. And when we are speaking about sin we need to turn to the Fathers to understand it properly.

Orthodox teaching about the sin of Adam is different in a slight and subtle way from Western teachings about original sin – though as with practically all slight and subtle differences between Eastern and Western thought, profound differences in worldview and orientation will follow. Our Father among the Saints Gregory of Nyssa, speaking on the deaths of unbaptised infants during the Pelagian controversies, put it this way, in slight contradistinction to Blessed Augustine of Hippo:
The premature deaths of infants have nothing in them to suggest the thought that one who so terminates his life is subject to some grievous misfortune, any more than they are to be put on a level with the deaths of those who have purified themselves in this life by every kind of virtue; the more far-seeing Providence of God curtails the immensity of sins in the case of those whose lives are going to be so evil.
In other words, in the view of the one Greek Father who spoke authoritatively on the subject of infant baptism and the fate of the unbaptised: infants who die in innocence, yet who are unbaptised, are neither to be thought of as meriting perdition, nor are they to be thought of as being equal with those who have been regenerated through baptism and who struggle toward virtue in life. This points to a style of thinking in which the sin of Adam is not imputed personally upon the infant in her natural state, but in that state, as a result of the sin of Adam, the natural likeness of God in the infant is still a damaged one, one in need of repair and cleansing (and hence, the need for baptism in the first place). Even though the infant has no personal sin to repent of, the environment, even the very fabric of reality in which she is formed and born is such that her human nature still falls short of perfection. In this way, both the anti-sacramental, individualistic desolation of Pelagianism and the legalistic extremes to which the Augustinian anthropology was later carried in the West, particularly by the Calvinists, are avoided.

So what does all this theological stuff have to do with the nature of oppression? Well, for one thing, the Orthodox view that ancestral sin is not something imputed upon the individual, but rather something which taints the reality in which the individual is formed, opens up the possibility of addressing social sins, or structural sins. We are all affected by the sin of Adam, and our natures and even the nature of reality are darkened by the sin of Adam. It follows from this, that other sins which are not personally imputed upon us, can also have deleterious effects on us, on our social surroundings, even on nature and the ways in which we understand it. When in the Liturgy of Saint John Chrysostom before partaking of the Gifts we pray, for example, ‘forgive my transgressions, both voluntary and involuntary, of word and of deed, of knowledge and of ignorance’, it is an acknowledgement that we may sin without having been aware of it, or that we may have partaken in others’ sins, even the sins of our forefathers, without any one act of volition on our part.

It is not, therefore, some error of Western thinking, much less a modern one, for an Orthodox person to acknowledge that the very structure and shape of the society, even the reality, around them can lead them into an involuntary sin, or a sin of ignorance. Indeed, this is the very shape of things which has resulted from the Fall, as the Greek Fathers themselves understood it. It is hardly something antithetical to Orthodoxy to acknowledge the sinfulness of certain collective ways of being, the sinfulness of ideologies, the sinfulness of ‘ordinary ways of doing business’, which will always fall short of the sophic vision or the Edenic ideal – yet against which it is nonetheless necessary to struggle. The social witness against structural sins – like consumerism, the wealth gap, militarism, neocolonialism, racism, even usury – is indeed a vital part of Orthodoxy, such that even (and especially!) the most traditional Churches in our communion have given voice to this witness.

The Orthodox believer in this conversation who was using sarcasm to ridicule the notion of structural sin or social evil would probably not think of himself as rebelling against the Fathers – even though, if in fact he is reacting against the idea of involuntary, non-imputed sin generally and asserting an extreme-Augustinian anthropology, that’s precisely what he is doing. Reading him charitably, though, it’s clear that what he is reacting against is precisely the same heresy which Blessed Augustine himself reacted against, and for very good reasons. After all, modernity produces no new heresies, just repackages old ones, and nowhere is this more true than in sociology. The Pelagian controversies resurfaced with one particular publication of the Enlightenment: Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s A Discourse on Inequality. Just as Pelagius asserted the purity and perfection of infants prior to baptism, Rousseau took the same idea and stated it thus: ‘man is born free; and everywhere he is in chains!’ The assumption that man is born perfect and that it is only society which chains him to imperfection is the main driving force behind much, if not all, modern secular-humanist reformism and revolution. Society must be attended to, and not man.

Even if the first part of that assertion is true (and I very much hold that it is), the second part asserting the perfectibility of man without regeneration is not only false: it is a wicked, prideful lie of the Evil One. There is a reason why, even though in Orthodoxy we regard Blessed Augustine with some well-deserved suspicion (particularly on the question of anthropology), he remains a saint in our Church, whereas Pelagius is reviled as a heretic. We must not, and cannot allow a preoccupation with perfecting society take the place of the vital duty of seeing our own sins, working to turn back, reorienting ourselves to Christ. In fact, without repentance and humility, not only can we not reform society, but in fact the reform of society we actually desire gets further and further away from us.

So let us pray for the reform of the society and for the struggle against our structural sins, by all means. But let us first pray for forgiveness of our own transgressions, and let each freely make his own way to repentance.

05 July 2016

Capitalism and slavery, old and new

This article by Blake Smith in Aeon magazine is an incredibly important one: I would emphatically exhort my gentle readers to read it all the way through. The Whigs – the libertarians and ‘liberal’ reformers who advocated free trade, deregulation and open markets in the late 17th and early 18th centuries – were not the enemies of the slave trade, as many Americans nowadays are sadly wont to think; no, indeed, the Whigs were actually the slave trade’s most ardent defenders. As Blake Smith argues in his article, the early advocates of laisser-faire economics, particularly Vincent de Gournay (noted influence on Adam Smith), pointed to the trade as a shining example of the growth that could be spurred by getting noisome government regulations out of the way of business – in this case, the business of kidnapping Africans and working them to death producing monoculture crops on large factory-style plantations in the colonies. In Smith’s words: ‘the birth of modern capitalism depended not only on the labour of enslaved people and the profits of the slave trade, but also on the example of slavery as a deregulated global enterprise’!

In an era when a radical movement based on industry and mass communication had not yet been born, the resistance to the slave trade was left largely in the hands of religious, High Church, conservative, monarchical – that is to say, Tory – moralists. People like, to give just a few examples: Samuel Johnson, Bishop Beilby Porteus, Jonathan Swift, James Oglethorpe, Robert Southey and Lord Dunmore. And later: Richard Oastler, Granville Sharp, Sir John Colborne, Bishop John Strachan and (famously) William Wilberforce. By and large, these men opposed slavery not on the grounds of any radical levelling notions of complete social equality, but precisely from those religious convictions that demanded a certain level of dignity and mutual respect between all human beings as creations of God. For very similar related reasons, they detested and opposed the Whiggish ideologies that would generate capitalism – a system they viewed as presumptuous on the part of the bourgeois arrivistes of mercantile trade, degrading to the poor, and debilitating to received forms of human relations that depended on mutual trust rather than on contractual obligations. Again, slavery was not only not inimical to capitalism, it was an expression of capitalism at its most brutal, with all the veneer of civility stripped away. Slavery is an enforceable capitalist contract wherein the slave is obligated for everything up to and including her own body, to a master who has no possible motive to earn or value her trust.

It is worthy of note that slavery has not gone away. It has simply changed its face, but it still exists and it is still defended largely by the same people. As Chris Hedges takes pains to tell us, the grisly market in human flesh continues to operate, though this time through legal and semi-legal avenues of prostitution and pornography. Some of the victims come from sub-Saharan Africa (in particular from Nigeria and Ghana), but Central America, Eastern Europe, East and especially Southeast Asia are where most of the victims and enslaved women and children tend to come from. And though a significant number are internally trafficked within their countries of origin (such as Thailand), the destination countries are very often the same masters of trade and commerce which have traditionally dominated the slave trade: Western Europe (including the Netherlands, Belgium, Germany and Italy), the old Ottoman Empire (Turkey and Greece), Saudi Arabia, Japan and the United States of America. It is true that human trafficking – that is, outright kidnapping and selling of human beings – accounts for possibly a tenth or more of the entire sex industry worldwide (that is to say, by no means all), but significantly more numbers of prostitutes are coerced in far subtler ways into ‘the trade’. Furthermore, legalisation of prostitution has been shown to increase the incidence of human trafficking inflows whilst restriction and prohibition of prostitution have been shown to decrease incidence of human trafficking; however, the authors of the study which uncovered these statistics still refused to sanction the obvious policy choice – because that choice might ‘overlook potential benefits’ of legal prostitution, such as restricting ‘freedom of choice’ (to which the obvious question arises: whose choice?).

Even though few modern-day Whigs and libertarians with any historical self-awareness would be so gauche as to support human trafficking outright (and even go so far as to deny any link between the two, and even call them ‘polar opposites’), they still have any number of reasons to support the single largest and most profitable industry in which slaves are trafficked. Chief among them being – yes – the idea of ‘free trade’. As long as money is being made, it seems, the industry should be deregulated, no matter how many millions of innocent Hispanic, Eastern European and Asian women worldwide are hurt in the process. That was, of course, the same justification for slavery that de Gournay used back in the day. It shouldn’t be any more convincing now.

04 July 2016

A new People’s League

Cross-posted from the Distributist Review:

If it weren’t already apparent, our country already has a crisis of political legitimacy. That point was hammered home thoroughly on Tuesday, when Clinton was not so much voted the Democratic presidential nominee as crowned by the media. As the keenly-insightful Thomas Frank put it, ‘Clinton won by an act of professional practice’. A fitting end, indeed, to a months-long display of pseudo-democratic bungling which had been meant to confirm what had already been decided behind closed doors, and which was subjected to a (politically-speaking) last-minute act of political insurgency from the outside in the form of Bernie Sanders’ campaign, which can now be not-so-safely ignored (but ignored all the same) by the party faithful. So what are we left with? 

We are now facing a singularly bleak prospect in our national presidential campaign. Both nominees from both major parties now represent: the continued dominance of baby-boomer narcissism in our public life; the triumph of scripted narrative over substantive issues; the tired clichés of ‘60’s sexual radicalism (whether of the Hugh Hefner or of the Gloria Steinem variety); the continued hostility to organised labour; the unimpeded privatisation of public goods; the predominance of military interventionism in our foreign policy; and the continued deep influence of big biz in our nation’s agriculture and energy sectors. Despite Donald Trump affecting something of a popular style which stands likely to win him the election, it is becoming ever clearer that his ‘populism’ is not the real McCoy. For all the supporters of one candidate love to fear and loathe the other, it seems clear now that no matter which one of the two major party candidates wins this election, business-as-usual will continue inside the Beltway. Once again, those of us who are concerned about the militaristic-neoliberal drift of our national politics will have to turn to a third-party insurgency that combines elements of the economic ‘left’ and the cultural ‘right’, as we have done often enough in the past. 

But what will such a third-party movement look like? As the historians of these movements, such as Lawrence Goodwyn and Robert Morlan, make clear: in the past, these third parties – the National Independent (later Greenback Labour) Party, the People’s Party, the Nonpartisan League, the Farmer-Labour Party – drew upon an acute awareness of structural deprival among specific constituencies, notably farmers and urban workers. This awareness had been built up through their experiences in cooperative and collective-bargaining movements – unions, credit unions, wholesale stores. In America now, though, organised labour has been broken, seemingly beyond repair. Many people who were industrial labourers are now either out-of-work or doing part-time make-work to stay afloat. Farmers have either gone big or gotten out, often to disastrous effect. What we have now in the United States is a vaguely-proletarianised labour force, consisting of temps, retail, transportation, service-industry and office workers and low-rung professionals. What we all have in common appears to be a state of economic anxiousness about long-term (or even short-term) prospects, combined with skyrocketing rates of consumer debt

One trick that any new third-party movement will have to pull off, if it is to address both the rural rancor currently running the Trump train and the youthful yearnings of the baccalaureate Bernie backers, is to get this large, diffuse underclass of debtors to identify with each other, in ways that bridge the cultural gulf between town and country. The Farmers’ Alliance, which grew into the People’s Party, drew on a broad swathe of shared economic concerns, and it deliberately ignored the regional sectionalism and partisanship which was the primary driver of politics in the wake of the Civil War. If we want to forge a new Debtors’ Alliance or People’s League or Solidarity Party, we will have a similarly Herculean task ahead of us. If we want to set up collective bargaining institutions that represent the labour force in meaningful ways – whether credit cooperatives or guilds of part-time or contract-based workers in the service or transportation sectors – those institutions will have to deliberately draw on mixed bases of urban and rural members. This will be necessary in order to cut through the miasma that has separated us into members of largely-symbolic cultural cliques. It should hardly need saying that, being equally vulnerable to personal, consumer and property-based debt, out-of-work miners in Appalachia and English-major baristas in the Acela Corridor do themselves no good screaming at each other. (I say this not because I believe that cultural values are unimportant, or because I don’t believe one side gets more right than the other. But the culture is hardly well-served as it is by setting two increasingly-meaningless sets of identity-totems against each other in pitched battles as the whole field around us burns.)

This may seem an insurmountable obstacle. But it can be done. And I think it should be done. We are looking at an election wherein two highly-distasteful, widely-disliked candidates have been nominated by the major parties. The sixth party system looks to be busted wide open. In its place, there ought to be a movement that speaks to the real concerns of the American electorate, rather than to those of big corporations. Regardless of party, most people in this country, I should think, don’t want to be shackled to payday lenders and collection agencies from here to Kingdom Come. They don’t want to worry about choosing whether to eat or pay the medical bill. They don’t want to worry about whether they’ll even have a job, or a roof over their heads, three months from now. Most people would prefer not to depend on government or corporate largesse for their own livelihoods, but would rather have a fairer distribution of property.

Let’s not shy away from these concerns.

03 July 2016

An extended insult to Canadian independence

Poor George Grant would be rolling in his grave, I’m sure. Though perhaps he’d take some cold comfort that his more pessimistic predictions in Lament for a Nation have been shown to be true.

Our president, unfortunately channelling the spirit of John Kennedy to Trudeau’s Lester Pearson, delivered a speech to the Canadian Parliament that appeared deliberately keyed to insult, denigrate and downplay Canada’s aspirations to its own national identity: a speech in which neoliberalism, NATO, NORAD and NAFTA are the symbols of import to an eternally unipolar understanding of American-Canadian relations (after some frivolous references to the Stanley Cup). A speech in which Russia (overtly) and China (in a more coded way) are summoned as the eternal bogeymen, in the now tiredly-familiar Cold War politics that Obama seems wholly reluctant to abandon. A speech in which Canada’s only useful contributions stem from its subservient status in upholding an American hegemonic order, which Obama wontedly describes as ‘international’ and ‘rules-based’, buttressed by ‘universal values’. A speech in which the deepest insult to Canada’s true heritage and cultural touchstones is delivered with insolent insistence with repeated references to the British withdrawal from the European Union. Canada is not only called upon as America’s partner-in-crime in creating the neoliberal order – it is called upon as having an identical cultural and normative orientation to the United States, in contradistinction to the British realm to which her government still swears allegiance.

Obama spent his time just ahead of Canada Day proclaiming an entirely one-sided alliance and friendship between America and Canada, in the process reviling all possible Canadian aspirations to its own place in the world, or to the values of ‘peace, order and good government’ which have traditionally distanced it from American identitarian individualism at home, the extremes of imperial violence abroad, and the economic depredations which inevitably followed both. Our president, naturally, is observant enough to recognise that the working class on both sides of the Atlantic faces some very grave problems in terms of making ends meet, but far too narcissistic to believe that his own preferred neoliberal, race-to-the-bottom trade policies might have anything to do with them. And he was met with applause in the Canadian Parliament for doing so. A sad day indeed for those of us who still hoped that the true north could remain strong and free, particularly after Brexit.