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Desperate Times Call for Whiteheadian Measures – August 2012

Question: In desperate times, can Whitehead help?

Publication Month: August 2012

Some years ago I suggested that nationalism had been the dominant religion of the West for several hundred years. The Peace of Westphalia (1648) symbolized its takeover of this role from Christianism. Three hundred and ten years later, the establishment of the European Economic Community symbolized the shift from nationalism to economism.

Of course, Christianism has not disappeared and nationalism remains a potent force. Also, economic concerns have been of extreme importance throughout history. Accordingly, the dominant religion never has total control. But whereas during the nationalist period the economy was managed for the sake of national wealth and power, today nations largely shape their policies for the sake of the economy. Corporations, the chief economic actors, have increasing freedom from interference by governments and increasing control over them.

A good illustration of how far the dominance of corporations has gone is the “Trans-Pacific Partnership.” This “trade agreement,” largely negotiated in secret, makes fully explicit that corporations can operate anywhere in the countries entering into the agreement with no need to conform to the laws of the host country. Their right to profits trumps any consideration about labor or the environment, for example. Neither Christianist nor nationalist concerns are allowed any place. This proposed “agreement” expresses the inner logic of economism without qualifications or pretense. Clearly the corporate world believes that its control over the administration, Congress, and the court system is such that it need no longer pretend to be interested in the public welfare and that it can use its control of the media to prevent the public from being aroused.

The most extreme expression of Christianism came in the inquisition, designed to expose and root out any threat to its control. The most extreme expression of nationalism came in totalitarianism, especially in Nazi Germany. But thoroughgoing economism is worse.

Those who were willing to accept Christianism were guaranteed a certain respect and protection. Most of those who were willing to accept the local nationalist totalitarian ideology were similarly respected and protected. But with nationalism there was an exception. To be a Christian was a voluntary act that was open to anyone. But one’s national identity was at least partly determined by one’s ancestry. European Jews, even those who converted to Christianity, were often not considered part of the celebrated “nation.” In Germany, the “final solution” was extermination.

But with economism, acceptance of the ideology and of the corporate rulers does not guarantee any benefits except to the economic elite. The economistic ideology views individuals as in competition with one another for jobs, goods, and services. Without the jobs, they can buy no goods and services. Their fate is of no interest to the dominating corporations. They are protected only by the remnants of influence of Christianism and nationalism.

When I first noted the shift from nationalism to economism, I pointed to the rise of Earthism as a hopeful indication that the dominance of economism might be short-lived. Sadly, Earthism has thus far been marginalized and ghettoized. And even as the world rushes toward the destruction of a livable planet, a presidential campaign proceeds as if this were a minor issue. The rhetorics of nationalism and Christianism continue to play a large role, but the survival of life on the planet is barely mentioned. Economism is central, but in an election, the corporate rulers still find it necessary to obscure their real intentions. Hence the debate is focused on issues of indifference to them.

Our question is whether beliefs, and especially metaphysical beliefs, play a role in these historical changes. Yes, they do. History is a complex interplay between beliefs and power. It cannot be reduced to a discussion of power apart from partially independent beliefs.

The reign of Christianism depended on particular beliefs. People believed that they were creatures of God and that God expected obedience. Because they were individually and collectively disobedient, God’s grace was essential. Their eternal wellbeing depended on this grace. In the context of this belief, secular power could be justified only as received from God. Since the church had the strongest claim to represent God on earth, this theory of legitimacy gave it control, and it used this power to reinforce the ideas that supported it.

Nationalism was a continuation and development of the tribalism that had existed from the beginning of humanity. But the modern claim to primacy required particular circumstances and ideas. During the Christianist era in the West, there were often dissident groups, but the basic dominance of the Roman Catholic Church was not seriously challenged prior to the sixteenth century Reformation. The Protestants were no less Christianist than the Catholics, but the resulting conflicts over the correct form of Christianism gave rise to thinking about what features of Christian teaching are really important for social order. This thinking was not committed to any of the warring parties and sought a ground for legitimacy of human authority that did not depend on any of these. This ground could still be God, but it was a God who related directly to everyone, or it could be the universal human situation with its need for imposed order. These theories allowed for the secular state to trump the church’s claim to authority. Henceforth, states began to regulate churches.

It was assumed that economic activity, formerly regulated by the church, was now also regulated by the state. However, within this context ideas were developed about the almost magical powers of “the market,” that is unregulated interactions among individuals, each seeking her or his own advantage. According to the theory, the larger the market and the less the regulation, the greater the increase of goods and services. This meant that more of the desires of the self-seeking individuals could be met.

Of course, those who held these views could also hold strongly nationalist views, which in general continued to trump the extreme implications of economism. But when nationalism collapsed, the compromises it demanded disappeared, and economism became the dominant ideology.

Just as there are divisions among Christians, so also there were deeply different versions of economic theory. That of Marx proved immensely important, and its influence still plays a role. However, it is now no threat to the neo-liberal economics that controls the graduate schools of economics in the West. My earlier comments about economism assume its hegemony.

This means that the world today is organized on the basis of a view of human beings that it rarely examines or even acknowledges. If one seriously asks whether human beings are accurately understood as self-contained and self-seeking individuals whose selfish actions benefit all, the answer is negative. Some say that, although this model is not accurate, it works well for the study of economic behavior, and its success justifies its continuing use. But the argument that it is working well is circular. If the only goal justified by the model is the increase of market activity, then it can be claimed that the policies it supports are relatively successful. But this claim about the goal is justified only by the model. The terrible consequences of this circular reasoning, especially when economism becomes globally dominant, are now visible to all who wish to look.

Many have protested this situation: some in the name of traditional religions, others out of concern for the earth. A few are troubled by the philosophical weakness of the theory and by the massive evidence against it. Whitehead encourages us to object for all these reasons. What he offers besides protest is a richly developed alternative to the philosophical basis of modern economic theories. This has made it possible to develop an alternative economic theory that aims at sustainable economic activity on a bio-diverse planet. Sadly the Whiteheadian option is not part of the public discussion.

The goal of the tenth International Whitehead Conference, to be held in Claremont in June of 2015, will be to call public attention to the process alternative in economics and in many other fields. In a public discussion between neoliberal economists and Whiteheadians, I am convinced that Whiteheadians would win hands down. Perhaps that would have an effect on public policy. If so, we might yet steer the world away from the fate to which bad metaphysics is directing it. Improbable, no doubt. But at least we should try.