The four fundamentalisms and the threat to sustainable democracy
By Robert Jensen
Published in CounterPunch · May, 2006
The most important words anyone said to me in the weeks immediately after September 11, 2001, came from my friend James Koplin. While acknowledging the significance of that day, he said, simply: “I was in a profound state of grief about the world before 9/11, and nothing that happened on that day has significantly changed what the world looks like to me.”
Because Jim is a bit older and considerably smarter than I, it took me some time to catch up to him, but eventually I recognized his insight. He was warning me that even we lefties — trained to keep an eye on systems and structures of power rather than obsessing about individual politicians and single events — were missing the point if we accepted the conventional wisdom that 9/11 “changed everything,” as the saying went then. He was right, and today I want to talk about four fundamentalisms loose in the world and the long-term crisis to which they point.
Before we head there, a note on the short-term crisis: I have been involved in U.S. organizing against the so-called “war on terror,” which has provided cover for the attempts to expand and deepen U.S. control over the strategically crucial resources of Central Asia and the Middle East, part of a global strategy that the Bush administration openly acknowledges is aimed at unchallengeable U.S domination of the world. For U.S. planners, that “world” includes not only the land and seas — and, of course, the resources beneath them — but space above as well. It is our world to arrange and dispose of as they see fit, in support of our “blessed lifestyle.” Other nations can have a place in that world as long as they are willing to assume the role that the United States determines appropriate. The vision of U.S. policymakers is of a world very ordered, by them.
This description of U.S. policy is no caricature. Anyone who doubts my summary can simply read the National Security Strategy document released in 2002 and the 2006 update and review post-World War II U.S. history. Read and review, but only if you don’t mind waking up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat of fear. But as scary as these paranoid, power-mad policymakers’ delusions may be, Jim was talking about a feeling beyond that fear — a grief that is much broader and goes much deeper.
Opposing the war-of-the-moment — and going beyond that to challenge the whole imperial project — is important. But also important is the work of thinking through the nature of the larger forces that leave us in this grief-stricken position. We need to go beyond Bush. We should recognize the seriousness of the threat that this particular gang of thieves and thugs poses and resist their policies, but not mistake them for the core of the problem.
One way to come to terms with these forces is to understand the United States as a society in the grip of four fundamentalisms. In ascending order of threat, I identify these fundamentalisms as religious, national, economic, and technological. All share some similar characteristics, while each poses a particular threat to sustainable democracy and sustainable life on the planet. Each needs separate analysis and strategies for resistance.
Let’s start by defining fundamentalism. The term has a specific meaning in Protestant history (an early 20th century movement to promote “The Fundamentals”), but I want to use it in a more general fashion to describe any intellectual/political/theological position that asserts an absolute certainty in the truth and/or righteousness of a belief system. Such fundamentalism leads to an inclination to want to marginalize, or in some cases eliminate, alternative ways to understand and organize the world. After all, what’s the point of engaging in honest dialogue with those who believe in heretical systems that are so clearly wrong or even evil? In this sense, fundamentalism is an extreme form of hubris, a delusional overconfidence not only in one’s beliefs but in the ability of humans to know much of anything definitively. In the way I use the term, fundamentalism isn’t unique to religious people but is instead a feature of a certain approach to the world, rooted in the mistaking of very limited knowledge for wisdom.
The antidote to fundamentalism is humility, that recognition of just how contingent our knowledge about the world is. We need to adopt what sustainable agriculture researcher Wes Jackson calls “an ignorance-based worldview,” an approach to world that acknowledges that what we don’t know dwarfs what we do know about a complex world. Acknowledging our basic ignorance does not mean we should revel in stupidity, but rather should spur us to recognize that we have an obligation to act intelligently on the basis not only of what we know but what we don’t know. When properly understood, I think such humility is implicit in traditional/indigenous systems and also the key lesson to be taken from the Enlightenment and modern science (a contentious claim, perhaps, given the way in which modern science tends to overreach). The Enlightenment insight, however, is not that human reason can know everything, but that we can give up attempts to know everything and be satisfied with knowing what we can know. That is, we can be content in making it up as we go along, cautiously. One of the tragedies of the modern world is that too few have learned that lesson.
Fundamentalists, no matter what the specific belief system, believe in their ability to know a lot. That is why it can be so easy for fundamentalists to move from one totalizing belief system to another. For example, I have a faculty colleague who shifted from being a dogmatic communist to a dogmatic right-wing evangelical Christian. When people hear of his conversion they often express amazement, though to me it always seemed easy to understand — he went from one fundamentalism to another. What matters is not so much the content but the shape of the belief system. Such systems should worry us.
That said, not all fundamentalisms pose the same danger to democracy and sustainability. So, let’s go through the four I have identified: religious, national, economic, and technological.
RELIGION AND NATION
The fundamentalism that attracts the most attention is religious. In the United States, the predominant form is Christian. Elsewhere in the world, Islamic, Jewish, and Hindu fundamentalisms are attractive to some significant portion of populations, either spread across a diaspora or concentrated in one region, or both. Given all the attention focused on religious fundamentalism, I’ll assume everyone has at least a passing acquaintance with the phenomenon and is aware of its threats.
But religious fundamentalism is not necessarily the most serious fundamentalist threat loose in the world today. Certainly much evil has been done in the world in the name of religion, especially the fundamentalist varieties, and we can expect more in the future. But, moving up the list, we also can see clearly the problems posed by national fundamentalism.
Nationalism poses a threat everywhere but should especially concern us in the United States, where the capacity for destruction in the hands of the most powerful state in the history of the world is exacerbated by a pathological hyper-patriotism that tends to suppress internal criticism and leave many unable to hear critique from outside. In other writing (Chapter 3 of Citizens of the Empire) I have outlined in some detail an argument that patriotism is intellectually and morally bankrupt. Here, let me simply point out that because a nation-state is an abstraction (lines on a map, not a naturally occurring object), assertions of patriotism (defined as love of or loyalty to a nation-state) raise a simple question: To what we are pledging our love and loyalty? How is that abstraction made real? I conclude that all the possible answers are indefensible and that instead of pledging allegiance to a nation, we should acknowledge and celebrate our connections to real people in our lives while also declaring a commitment to universal principles, but reject offering commitment to arbitrary political units that in the modern era have been the vehicle for such barbarism and brutality.
That critique applies across the board, but because of our power and peculiar history, a rejection of national fundamentalism is most crucial in the United States. The dominant conception of that history is captured in the phrase “the city upon a hill,” the notion that the United States came into the world as the first democracy, a beacon to the world. In addition to setting the example, as soon as it had the capacity to project its power around the world, the United States claimed to be the vehicle for bringing democracy to that world. These are particularly odd claims for a nation that owes its very existence to one of the most successful genocides in recorded history, the near-complete extermination of indigenous peoples to secure the land and resource base for the United States. Odder still when one looks at the U.S. practice of African slavery that propelled the United States into the industrial world, and considers the enduring apartheid system — once formal and now informal — that arose from it. And odd-to-the-point-of-bizarre in the context of imperial America’s behavior in the world since it emerged as the lone superpower and made central to its foreign policy in the post-WWII era attacks on any challenge in the Third World to U.S. dominance.
While all the empires that have committed great crimes — the British, French, Belgians, Japanese, Russians and then the Soviets — have justified their exploitation of others by the alleged benefits it brought to the people being exploited, there is no power so convinced of its own benevolence as the United States. The culture is delusional in its commitment to this mythology, which is why today one can find on the other side of the world peasant farmers with no formal education who understand better the nature of U.S. power than many faculty members at elite U.S. universities. This national fundamentalism rooted in the assumption of the benevolence of U.S. foreign and military policy works to trump critical inquiry. As long as a significant component of the U.S. public — and virtually the entire elite — accept this national fundamentalism, the world is at risk.
Economic fundamentalism, synonymous these days with market fundamentalism, presents another grave threat. After fall of the Soviet system, the naturalness of capitalism is now taken to be beyond question. The dominant assumption about corporate capitalism in the United States is not simply that it is the best among competing economic systems, but that it is the only sane and rational way to organize an economy in the contemporary world.
In capitalism, (1) property, including capital assets, is owned and controlled by private persons; (2) people sell their labor for money wages, and (3) goods and services are allocated by markets. In contemporary market fundamentalism, also referred to as neoliberalism, it’s assumed that most extensive use of markets possible will unleash maximal competition, resulting in the greatest good — and all this is inherently just, no matter what the results. The reigning ideology of so-called “free trade” seeks to impose this neoliberalism everywhere on the globe. In this fundamentalism, it is an article of faith that the “invisible hand” of the market always provides the preferred result, no matter how awful the consequences may be for real people.
A corresponding tenet of the market fundamentalist view is that the government should not interfere in any of this; the appropriate role of government, we are told, is to stay out of the economy. This is probably the most ridiculous aspect of the ideology, for the obvious reason that it is the government that establishes the rules for the system (currency, contract law, etc.) and decides whether the wealth accumulated under previous sets of rules should be allowed to remain in the hands of those who accumulated it (typically in ways immoral, illegal, or both; we should recall the quip that behind every great fortune is a great crime) or be redistributed. To argue that government should stay out of the economy merely obscures the obvious fact that without the government — that is, without rules established through some kind of collective action — there would be no economy. The government can’t stay out because it’s in from the ground floor, and assertions that government intervention into markets is inherently illegitimate are just silly.
Adding to the absurdity of all this is the hypocrisy of the market fundamentalists, who are quick to call on government to bail them out when things go sour (in recent U.S history, the savings-and-loan and auto industries are the most outrageous examples). And then there’s the reality of how some government programs — most notably the military and space departments — act as conduits for the transfer of public money to private corporations under the guise of “national defense” and the “exploration of space.” And then there’s the problem of market failure — the inability of private markets to provide some goods or provide other goods at the most desirable levels — of which economists are well aware.
In other words, economic fundamentalism — the worship of markets combined with steadfast denial about how the system actually operates — leads to a world in which not only are facts irrelevant to the debate, but people learn to ignore their own experience.
On the facts: There is a widening gap between rich and poor, both worldwide and within most nations. According to U.N. statistics, about a quarter of the world’s population lives on less than $1 a day and nearly half live on less than $2. The 2005 U.N. Report on the World Social Situation, aptly titled “The Inequality Predicament,” stresses:
“Ignoring inequality in the pursuit of development is perilous. Focusing exclusively on economic growth and income generation as a development strategy is ineffective, as it leads to the accumulation of wealth by a few and deepens the poverty of many; such an approach does not acknowledge the intergenerational transmission of poverty.”
That’s where the data lead. But I want to highlight the power of this fundamentalism by reminding us of a common acronym: TGIF. Everyone in the United States knows what that means: “Thank God it’s Friday.” The majority of Americans don’t just know what TGIF stands for, they feel it in their bones. That’s a way of saying that a majority of Americans do work they generally do not like and do not believe is really worth doing. That’s a way of saying that we have an economy in which most people spend at least a third of their lives doing things they don’t want to do and don’t believe are valuable. We are told this is a way of organizing an economy that is natural.
Religious, national, and economic fundamentalisms are dangerous. They are systems of thought — or, more accurately, systems of non-thought; as Wes Jackson puts it, “fundamentalism takes over where thought leaves off” — that are at the core of much of the organized violence in the world today. They are systems that are deployed to constrain real freedom and justify illegitimate authority. But it may turn out that those fundamentalisms are child’s play compared with U.S. society’s technological fundamentalism.
Most concisely defined, technological fundamentalism is the assumption that the increasing use of increasingly more sophisticated high-energy, advanced technology is always a good thing and that any problems caused by the unintended consequences of such technology eventually can be remedied by more technology. Those who question such declarations are often said to be “anti-technology,” which is a meaningless insult. All human beings use technology of some kind, whether it’s stone tools or computers. An anti-fundamentalist position is not that all technology is bad, but that the introduction of new technology should be evaluated on the basis of its effects — predictable and unpredictable — on human communities and the non-human world, with an understanding of the limits of our knowledge.
Our experience with unintended consequences is fairly clear. For example, there’s the case of automobiles and the burning of petroleum in internal-combustion engines, which gave us the interstate highway system and contributes to global warming. We haven’t quite figured out how to cope with these problems, and in retrospect it might have been wise to go slower in the development of a transportation system based on the car and think through the consequences.
Or how about CFCs and the ozone hole? Chlorofluorocarbons have a variety of industrial, commercial, and household applications, including in air conditioning. They were thought to be a miracle chemical when introduced in the 1930s — non-toxic, non-flammable, and non-reactive with other chemical compounds. But in the 1980s, researchers began to understand that while CFCs are stable in the troposphere, when they move to the stratosphere and are broken down by strong ultraviolet light they release chlorine atoms that deplete the ozone layer. This unintended effect deflated the exuberance a bit. Depletion of the ozone layer means that more UV radiation reaches the Earth’s surface, and overexposure to UV radiation is a cause of skin cancer, cataracts, and immune suppression.
But, the technological fundamentalists might argue, we got a handle on that one and banned CFCs, and now the ozone hole is closing. True enough, but what lessons have been learned? Society didn’t react to the news about CFCs by thinking about ways to step back from a world that has become dependent on air conditioning, but instead looked for replacements to keep the air conditioning running. So, the reasonable question is: When will the unintended effects of the CFC replacements become visible? If not the ozone hole, what’s next? There’s no way to predict, but it seems reasonable to ask the question and sensible to assume the worst.
This technological fundamentalism makes it clear why Jackson’s call for an ignorance-based worldview is so important. If we were to step back and confront honestly the technologies we have unleashed — out of that hubris, believing our knowledge is adequate to control the consequences of our science and technology — I doubt any of us would ever get a good night’s sleep. We humans have been overdriving our intellectual headlights for some time, most dramatically in the second half of the 20th century. Most obviously, there are two places we have gone, with reckless abandon, where we had no business going — into the atom and into the cell.
On the former: The deeper we break into the energy package, the greater the risks we take. Building fires with sticks gathered from around the camp is relatively easy to manage, but breaking into increasingly earlier material of the universe — such as fossil fuels and, eventually, heavy metal uranium — is quite a different project, more complex and far beyond our capacity to control. Likewise, manipulating plants through selective breeding is local and manageable, whereas breaking into the workings of the gene — the foundational material of life — takes us to places we have no way to understand.
We live now in the uncomfortable position of realizing we have moved too far and too fast, outstripping our capacity to manage safely the world we have created. The answer is not some naïve return to a romanticized past, but a recognition of what we have created and a systematic evaluation of how to step back from our most dangerous missteps.
REDEFINING A GOOD LIFE
Central to that project is realizing that we have to learn to live with less, which we can accomplish only when we recognize that living with less is crucial not only to ecological survival but long-term human fulfillment. People in the United States live with an abundance of most everything — except meaning. The people who have the most in material terms seem to spend the most time in therapy, searching for answers to their own alienation. This “blessed lifestyle” — a term Bush’s spokesman used in 2000 to describe the president’s view of U.S. affluence — perhaps is more accurately also seen as a curse.
Let’s return to CFCs and air-conditioning. To someone who lives in Texas, with its miserable heat half the year, it’s reasonable to ask: If not air-conditioning, then what? One possible reasonable response is, of course, to vacate Texas, a strategy I ponder often. More realistic: The “cracker house,” a term from Florida and Georgia to describe houses built before air-conditioning that utilize shade, cross-ventilation, and various building techniques to create a livable space even in the summer in the deep South. Of course, even with all that, there are times when it’s hot in a cracker house — so hot that one doesn’t want to do much of anything but drink iced tea and sit on the porch. That raises a question: What’s so bad about sitting on the porch drinking iced tea instead of sitting inside in an air-conditioned house?
A world that steps back from high-energy/high-technology answers to all questions will no doubt be a harder world in some ways. But the way people cope without such “solutions” can help create and solidify human bonds. In this sense, the high-energy/high-technology world often contributes to impoverished relationships and the destruction of longstanding cultural practices and the information those practices carry. So, stepping back from this fundamentalism is not simply sacrifice but an exchange of a certain kind of comfort and easy amusement for a different set of rewards.
Articulating this is important in a world in which people have come to believe the good life is synonymous with consumption and the ability to acquire increasingly sophisticated technology. To miss the way in which turning from the high-energy/high-technology can improve our lives, then, supports the techno-fundamentalists, such as this writer in the Wired magazine:
“Green-minded activists failed to move the broader public not because they were wrong about the problems, but because the solutions they offered were unappealing to most people. They called for tightening belts and curbing appetites, turning down the thermostat and living lower on the food chain. They rejected technology, business, and prosperity in favor of returning to a simpler way of life. No wonder the movement got so little traction. Asking people in the world’s wealthiest, most advanced societies to turn their backs on the very forces that drove such abundance is naïve at best.”
Naïve, perhaps, but not as naïve as the belief that unsustainable systems can be sustained indefinitely. With that writer’s limited vision — which is what passes for vision in this culture — it’s not surprising that he advocates economic and technological fundamentalist solutions:
“With climate change hard upon us, a new green movement is taking shape, one that embraces environmentalism’s concerns but rejects its worn-out answers. Technology can be a font of endlessly creative solutions. Business can be a vehicle for change. Prosperity can help us build the kind of world we want. Scientific exploration, innovative design, and cultural evolution are the most powerful tools we have. Entrepreneurial zeal and market forces, guided by sustainable policies, can propel the world into a bright green future.”
In other words: Let’s ignore our experience and throw the dice. Let’s take naiveté to new heights. Let’s forget all we should have learned.
So far, it appears my criticism has been of the fundamentalist versions of religion, nation, capitalism, and high-technology. But the problem goes deeper than the most exaggerated versions of these systems. If there is to be a livable future, religion as we know it, the nation-state, capitalism, and what we think of as advanced technology will have to give way to new ways of understanding the world and organizing ourselves. We still have to find ways to struggle with the mystery of the world through ritual and art; organize ourselves politically; produce and distribute goods and services; and create the tools we need to do all these things. But the existing systems have proven inadequate to the task. On each front, we need major conceptual revolutions.
I don’t pretend to have answers, nor should anyone else. We are at the beginning of a long process of redefining what it means to be human in relation to others and to the non-human world. We are still formulating questions. Some find this a depressing situation, but we could just as well see it as a time that opens incredible opportunities for creativity. To live in unsettled times — especially times in which it’s not difficult to imagine life as we know it becoming increasingly untenable — is both frightening and exhilarating. In that sense, my friend’s acknowledgement of profound grief need not scare us but instead can be a place from which we see clearly and gather the strength to move forward.
What is that path? Tracking the four fundamentalisms, we can see some turns we need to make.
Technologically: We need to stop talking about progress in terms that reflexively glorify faster and more powerful devices, and instead adopt a standard for judging progress based on the real effects on humans and the wider world of which we are a part.
Economically: We need to stop talking about growth in terms of more production and adopt a standard for economic growth and development based on meeting human needs.
Nationally: We need to stop talking about national security and the national interest — code words for serving the goals of the powerful — and focus on people’s interests in being secure in the basics: food, shelter, education, and communal solidarity.
Religiously: We need to stop trying to pin down God. We can understand God as simply the name we give to that which is beyond our ability to understand, and recognize that the attempt to create rules for how to know God is always a failed project.
I want to end by reinforcing the ultimate importance of that recognition: Most of the world is complex beyond our ability to comprehend. It’s not that there’s nothing we can know through our rational faculties, but that it’s essential we recognize the limits of those faculties. We need to reject the fundamentalist streak in all of us, religious or secular, whatever our political affiliation.
We need to stop mistaking cleverness for wisdom. We need to embrace our limits — our ignorance — in the hopes that we can stop being so stupid.
When we do that we are coming to terms with the kind of animals we are, in all our glory and all our limitations. That embrace of our limitations is an embrace of a larger world of which we are a part, more glorious than most of us ever experience.
When we do that — if we can find our way clear to do that — I think we make possible love in this world. Not an idealized love, but a real love that recognizes the joy that is possible and the grief that is inevitable.
It is my dream to live in that world, to live in that love.
There is much work to be done if we want that world. There is enormous struggle that can’t be avoided. When we allow ourselves to face it, we will realize that ahead of us there is suffering beyond description, as well as potential for transcending that suffering.
There is grief and joy.
And there is nothing to do but face it.