Deformations of the Apocalypse

When Communism collapsed in 1989, capitalism was the alternative. If capitalism collapses, what is the alternative today? This question deserves serious consideration. The dearth of policy solutions to the current economic crisis, compounded by sharp partisan policy disagreements in the United States and political indecisiveness in Europe and Japan, puts the virtual collapse of capitalism within the realm of plausibility.

Besides the protracted economic recession, a concatenation of intractable challenges—unsustainable budget deficits driven by irrepressible health-care costs and escalating expenditures on retiring baby boomers; surging corporate profits against stagnating wages, reinforcing growth of inequality and poverty; insufficient consumer demand because of excessive household debt and high unemployment; an unbridled global economy that localizes benefits to corporate chieftains but globalizes risks—threatens the very foundations of free market capitalism.

The current economic slump is the deepest since the Great Depression. And what is really sobering—as Paul Krugman, a Nobel laureate, has repeatedly emphasized—is that only the massive public spending during World War II ended the Depression. But then we must realize that the huge public spending advocated by Krugman and the Keynesians is constrained by ballooning budget deficits and fiercely opposed by deficit hawks and Tea Party activists. Incidentally and of first importance, the accruing national debts are rooted in unsustainable promises of the modern welfare state. These promises were made in the wake of the Great Depression and World War II as a defensive response to the horrors of Nazism and the specter of Communism. The European Union and the American-shaped international organizations (NATO, U.N., and IMF) were also designed as barriers to the totalitarian menace.

“Thanks to half a century of prosperity and safety,” wrote Tony Judt, the Pulitzer-winning historian, in Reappraisals: Reflections on the Forgotten Twentieth Century, “we in the West have forgotten the political and social traumas of mass insecurity. And thus we have forgotten why we inherited those welfare states and what brought them about.”1 This amnesia is indeed dangerous. It recalls the blithe claims by leading economists, Ben Bernanke among them, before the 2008 financial debacle that severe business cycles had been tamed and were a relic of the past. If the severity of the 2008 financial crisis exposed the naïveté of those claims, it should disabuse us of the smug belief that the primal spiritual forces—forces that have always trailed social and economic catastrophes—have been tamed. The demonic mythical powers, as Ernst Cassirer warned in the wake of Nazism, have not been really vanquished and subjugated. They are always there, lurking in the dark, and waiting for their hour and opportunity.2

To be sure, the motley of resentments, hatreds, paranoia, millenarian fantasies, and demonological conspiracies that the Nazis forged into a virulent totalitarian ideology are still with us, gushing in the sewers of the Internet. As the rise of right-wing populists in Europe portentously reveals, they are now seeping through the widening cracks of the free market edifice. Yet in appraising the epithets “neo-Nazi,” “neo-Fascist,” “irrational,” “right-wing extremists,” and others used to describe these forces and passions, our understanding of this netherworld is feeble and foolhardy. Far from being a fantasy of the economically thwarted or academic quacks, this netherworld is primitive and demonic. And the survival of the primitive-conspiratorial-magical realism through the centuries and its eerie ability to assume concrete ideological form and messianic dimensions in times of severe social crisis should alert us to the forces that we are dealing with.

Against these demonic-magical forces human reason or agency is easily rendered helpless. It is worth remembering that Greek rationalism was smothered by the popular magical-mystical cults, which later swamped the Greco-Roman civilization. These cults did not simply smother Greek rationalism—they absorbed and converted it, to produce the various streams that make up the Western occult tradition: Gnosticism, Neoplatonism, Kabbalah, and Hermeticism.

Significantly, in both the Greek and Roman cases, the ascendancy of the occult was against the background of social and economic crisis. Similarly, the collapse of the medieval universe was attended by a revival of Hermetic magic and the occult during the Renaissance. Again, when from the late eighteenth century the European agrarian order was shattered by the emergence of industrial capitalism and urbanization, the occult enjoyed a strong revival, especially in Germany, where it deeply influenced German Romanticism, idealism, and Volkish-nationalist ideology.

Largely unperceived at the time, the threat posed by these occult forces became all too salient with the rise of Nazism. Immediately after Hitler’s first electoral victory in 1930, Thomas Mann warned against the “spiritual sources of support” that Nazism could draw from.3 Indeed, in Mein Kampf Hitler himself asserted that “any violence which does not spring from a firm spiritual base will be wavering and uncertain.”4 And his speeches were saturated with religious allusions and metaphors of national rebirth and redemption, reconciliation and unity, and entreaties to the Almighty. To be sure, his self-confidence was rooted in his egomaniac conviction that Providence had chosen him to redeem Germany. Mussolini evinced the same spiritualism. As Mussolini put in The Doctrine of Fascism: “Fascism is a religious conception of life . . . which transcends any individual and raises him to the status of an initiated member of a spiritual society.”5

Again, Mussolini’s and Hitler’s political or secular spirituality was not original. Although Fascism and Nazism were products of World War I, the constituent ingredients had been in the making at least since the French Revolution. Nationalism and mass democracy had long been sacralized, suffused with religious rituals, festivals, myths, and symbols.6 The messianic notion of the coming führer of the Germans had been molded long before it was fitted to Hitler.7 The widespread, visceral polemic against the divisions and tensions engendered by liberal parliamentary democracy and industrial capitalism, including its anti-Semitic undertow, also predated Hitler. Also long in the making and permeating all these historical antecedents was a deep yearning for a mystical-national unity, for a radically new harmonious society.

These historical antecedents notwithstanding, the German catastrophe was not inevitable. But in the wake of World War I and the Great Depression, under extreme social and economic crisis that produced a deep longing for salvation, these antecedents entered into new ideological combinations and assumed intensely enchanting forms, at once political and spiritual. Astigmatism to the deeply spiritual dimension of the German crisis, in particular to the “spiritual sources of support” the Nazis were drawing from, doomed Germany. Unable to distinguish between the divine and the demonic, good and evil spirits, the true Messiah and the false messiah, Germans were seduced by “Hitler’s claim to be the providential savior.” As Fritz Stern observed: “His religious invocations suited a society which for generations had seen the intertwining of the divine and the secular.”8 Stern also observed how the “silent secularization,” especially of Protestant Germany, abetted the sacralization of the nation, the state, and politics, and left an unacknowledged vacuum in which pseudo-religions could flourish.9

The past is always present. A similar vacuum exists in the West today. A progressively liberal and regressing Protestant Christianity has left a spiritual vacuum that has been filled by pseudo gospels, religious charlatans, magical spirituality, Internet-organized superstitions, and conspiratorial cults of unreason. On the other hand, while Catholicism has steadfastly resisted the secular tide, as a church-state instrumental in the birth of Western civilization, it is congenitally and historically implicated in the con-fusion of the divine and the secular, the political and the religious: the con-fusion that is at the heart of spiritual deformations or secular religions such as Fascism and Communism. Indeed, modern freedoms, be they religious, economic, political, or individual, were elaborated as a retort to the medieval church-state’s authoritarianism; to its passion for unity that had all the intimations of modern totalitarianism.

This point is of first importance because Catholicism has played an influential and commendable role in the global debate about social and economic justice. Indeed, in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis it presented its ethical teachings as an antidote to unbridled capitalism. And in the encyclical Caritas in Veritate (2009) Pope Benedict XVI excoriated the evils of global capitalism and called for the establishment of a “true world political authority” to check unbridled capitalism. Addressing the impersonality and moral vacuity of globalization, the pope also called for a “process of worldwide integration that is open to transcendence.” Incidentally, in Making Globalization Good: The Moral Challenges of Global Capitalism, edited by John H. Dunning, the distinguished international business scholar, prominent economists (e.g., Joseph Stiglitz and Jonathan Sacks), policymakers, and business executives, echo the Catholic moral critique of global capitalism. They not only call for a new “moral ecology” that is more responsible and inclusive; they also argue that the collective force of world religions can be harnessed to achieve an integrated, balanced global ethic.

Since moral criticism of global capitalism has also been a staple of leftists, anarchists, Islamists, and most of the developing world, it is universal. This renders capitalism very vulnerable. After all, it has never developed a language to legitimize itself. It has survived its ideological opponents primarily because it has been successful. Absent that success or after the shattering of a global economic crisis, anticapitalism can easily provide a fulcrum for the convergence of interests, mobilization of passions, and creation of the “true world political authority” proposed by the pope. We must remember that the Protestant Reformation’s critique of religious absolutism, the pluralism of the free market, and liberal democracy are in a sense spiritual retorts to the primal human propensity to play God, to contravene the limits of our knowledge and power.

Indeed, the collapse of Communism and of the global financial system in 2008 should teach us the limits of our knowledge. We just do not have the acumen to run things too big. Absolute projects and ultimate solutions belong to the eschaton, to the coming Messiah. As Paul succinctly put it, “we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when completeness comes, what is in part disappears” (1 Corinthians 13:9, 10).10 Simply put, in line with our human finitude all social, political, and economic projects must be partial and provisional, “to be kept flexible and perpetually subject to revision and renewal in the light of political experience seen in an eschatological perspective.”11 This perspective is most animated by the apocalyptic insight of “that ancient serpent called the devil, or Satan, who leads the whole world astray” (Revelation 12:9), by aping God or “masquerading... as an angel of light” (2 Corinthians 11:14). Historically, this satanic mendacity is palpable in the so-called irrational forces, in their pungent spirituality, conspiratorial-magical realism, and most of all in their eerie ability to assume concrete ideological form and messianic dimensions in times of acute social and economic crisis.

Again, satanic mendacity is the clue to the demonic essence that made Communism, Fascism, and Nazism so seductive, so destructive and transcendentally evil. As Eric Voegelin, one of the twentieth century’s foremost political scientists and an escapee from the Nazis, pointed out: “When considering National Socialism from a religious standpoint, one should be able to proceed on the assumption that there is evil in the world and, moreover, that evil is not only a deficient mode of being, a negative element, but also a real substance and force that is effective in the world. Resistance against a satanical substance that is not only morally but also religiously evil can only be derived from an equally strong, religiously good force. One cannot fight a satanical force with morality and humanity alone.”12

Leszek Kolakowski, an ex-Marxist Catholic philosopher who was exiled from his native Poland and author of the magisterial Main Currents of Marxism, made the same point, “The devil is part of our experience. Our generation has seen enough of it [evil] for the message to be taken extremely seriously. Evil, I contend, is not contingent, it is not the absence, or deformation, or the subversion of virtue (or whatever else we may think of as its opposite), but a stubborn and unredeemable fact.”13

Of course, the secular intelligentsia never invokes God or the devil in any diagnostic capacity. Yet Hobbes and Locke—founders of the liberal tradition—used apocalyptic imagery, and invoked God and the devil to unmask the spiritual pride and egomaniacal passions behind the political theologies of their day. Actually, this keen apocalyptic insight into the irrepressible, self-deifying propensity of pride played a constitutive role in the development of ideas about liberty and political pluralism at the heart of the Anglo-American liberal tradition.

If the gist of the separation of powers was to check the primal egomaniacal passions, the separation of church and state was to deny them the divine sanction or spiritual cover they masqueraded under. Also, as Albert O. Hirschman showed, the birth and growth of capitalism entailed the domestication of pride, the aristocratic passion for military honor and glory.14 Apparently, in both politics and economics, the pluralism of the Anglo-American liberal tradition was informed by a moral and psychological insight into the problem of the passions, pride above all, which was traced to the devil. Regrettably, this rich and complex Protestant-apocalyptic context has been overlooked or underappreciated. This leaves the Anglo-American liberal tradition at a serious disadvantage against moralizing and religious ideological opponents.

The 2008 financial crisis put Anglo-American capitalism on trial; and the jury is still out. However, the moral critiques of global capitalism evince a deeply unsettling historical amnesia and spiritual astigmatism. Forgotten here is that when they were still in the future, before Fascism and Nazism were dishonored by their diabolical crimes and Communism by its dystopian failure, their inclusive and communitarian visions were viewed as moral antidotes to the evils of capitalism and liberal democracy. In other words, are we not just as deluded in our visions of a global moral order? The apocalyptic warning that “Satan himself masquerades as an angel of light” (2 Corinthians 11:14), should alert us to the ever-present danger of satanic mendacity. Indeed, the diabolical results of past moral efforts to solve the contradictions of capitalism, should disabuse us of global moral solutions. The evils of capitalism can be alleviated but never eliminated. For the final solution, let’s wait for the divine Redeemer and not presume to play global god ourselves.

1 Tony Judt, Reappraisals: Reflections on the Forgotten Twentieth Century (New York: Penguin Books, 2008), p. 10.
2 Ernst Cassirer, The Myth of the State (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press,1946), p. 280.
3 Cited in Fritz Stern, The Politics of Cultural Despair (Berkeley, Calif.: University of California, 1974), p. 292.
4 Adolf Hitler, Mein Kampf, trans. Ralph Manheim (Boston: Houghton-Mifflin Co., 1943), p. 171.
5 Cited in Emilio Gentile, The Sacralization of Politics in Fascist Italy, trans. Keith Botsford (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1996), p. 59.
6 George L. Mosse, The Nationalization of the Masses: Political Symbolism and Mass Movements in Germany From the Napoleonic Wars Through the Third Reich (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1975).
7 Ian Kershaw, The “Hitler Myth”: Image and Reality in the Third Reich (New York: Oxford University Press, 1987), pp. 13-47.
8 Fritz Stern, Dreams and Delusions: The Drama of German History (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1999), p. 153.
9 Ibid, p. 11.
10 Texts in this article are from the Holy Bible, New International Version. Copyright ©1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.
11 R. A. Markus, Saeculum: History and Society in the Theology of St. Augustine (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1970), pp. 171, 172.
12 Cited in Michael Burleigh, Earthly Powers: The Clash of Religion and Politics in Europe From the French Revolution to the Great War (New York: Harper Perennial, 2007), p. 5.
13 Cited in Judt, p. 17.
14 Albert O. Hirschman, The Passions and the Interests: Political Arguments for Capitalism Before Its Triumph (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1977).

Article Author: Elijah Mvundura

Elijah Mvundura writes from Calgary, Alberta, Canada. He has graduate degrees in economic history, European history, and education.