‘Ecce homo’; or, the Ghost in the Machine

Over the next weeks and months, I will dedicate a few posts on this blog to exploring the subject of integralism, a doctrine of Church and state that seeks to dismantle the wall that liberals have erected between the two. In particular, I want to engage with recent (and some not-so-recent) writings by Peter J. Leithart and other contributors to First Things who champion integralism. I was inspired to pursue this topic by a September 2 First Things article by Leithart.

I have written a lot on this blog about the separation of the Church and the state under our liberal capitalist regime, a regime that is at least as old as the Reformation. In the West, we maintain this separation through a series of institutions and policies that I, on the whole, support. But within the liberal Protestant imagination, we have developed an almost dogmatic insistence on the Church/state divide. Church and state are not merely politically separate institutions in the Protestant mind: they are doctrinally and spiritually separate. In the minds of most people who live in societies where Protestant ideology (if not Protestant religion) remains dominant, each individual Christian functions as the core unit of religious faith and practice; the Church is a secondary unit; and the culture-at-large exists in a hazy realm outside both the individual and the Church. The delicate suggestion that we avoid discussing religion and politics in polite company reveals the degree to which a) Church and state are viewed as separate spheres and b) both those spheres are bound up with our notion of our deepest, most private selves.

I have criticized Protestants who attempt to place this separation of the Church and the state at the core of Christian doctrine. In part three of my recent post on Christian Nationalism, I wrote:

For the majority of Christians throughout history, church and state go hand-in-hand. Christ is embodied by the Church. He built the Church as an institution to represent Him on earth. The Church is legitimized through apostolic succession and through orthodox belief. And both apostolic succession and orthodox belief have been legitimized by the state. You cannot argue that state Christianity is inauthentic without rejecting almost all of Christian history and Christian tradition…

A fully integrated Church-state is not heresy, despite what critics of so-called Christian Nationalism might say. It is also not feasible in a liberal (or even post-liberal) regime. And most of the so-called Christian Nationalists in power don’t seem especially serious about either Christianity or nationalism. They are, on the whole, minor members of the U.S. House of Representatives and various state governments who use their political offices to gain celebrity and media careers.

But what about those intellectuals who, like the editors and writers at First Things, seem serious about both Christianity and nationalism? I’m not sure I subscribe to the narrative one frequently hears among left-leaning commentators, that intellectuals on the right have a uniquely strong influence on the conservative movement when compared to intellectuals on the left and their relatively meager influence on Democratic policy. But I obviously find the sincere advocates of a kind of Christian Nationalism fascinating.

In this series of posts, I want to consider the insights and shortfalls of liberalism, the ideological project that overlays the political and economic organs of capitalism, and of integralism, a political project with wildly ambitious aspirations to supplant liberalism’s ideological hegemony. Integralists want to tear down the wall between Church and—although they are grounded in the precedents of the Church-state symbiosis that existed in the Middle Ages—they seek to conceive of new ways of being human. In this way, integralism is simultaneously backward- and forward-looking, simultaneously reactionary and progressive. If that sounds eerily similar to another, infamous twentieth-century political philosophy, well, you may be onto something.

Liberalism is a virus of the mind. Once you’ve been infected, you are infected for life, and there are no long periods of dormancy when symptoms abate and the effects of the virus are easy to forget. No, symptoms are always present and persistent. The liberal worldview, like most dominant ideologies, disguises its historical contingencies and reshapes the liberal subject’s entire relationship to the past and the future into a continuous present: a constant, ahistorical, liberal reality consisting of individual agents who extend backward and forward into eternity. As such, liberalism effectively ends history. It is an all-consuming set of ideas and material conditions that possess incredible appetites, omnivorous and totalizing. Liberalism is endlessly protean; it is always mutating, and it can adjust to and incorporate any critique or challenge to its hegemony. Once you’re in, there is no way out.

Liberalism is one way of being human; it deceives us into believing that it is the only way to be human.

That’s one account of liberalism, anyway. It’s an account that extends, to different degrees and in different forms, from left to right and beyond the traditional left-right spectrum. You can find aspects and fragments of this account in the sociology of Max Weber; in the political philosophy of John Rawls; in the neo-Hegelianism of Alexandre Kojève; in the neoconservativism of Francis Fukuyama; in the neoliberalism of the Austrian School economists (e.g., Friedrich Hayek and Ludwig von Mises); in the pragmatist epistemology of Richard Rorty; in the cultural analysis of the Frankfurt School; among the structuralist theoreticians of Marx (e.g., Louis Althusser); within the diverse currents of French post-structuralism (whether in the ahistorical semiotic systems of Jacque Derrida and Jacque Lacan or in the hyper-historicism of Michel Foucault); and in the ideologically omnivorous rants of Slavoj Žižek. Even Noam Chomsky, a liberal who rarely dabbles in abstractions or high ideological speculation, frequently historicizes liberalism and criticizes the course that liberalism has taken within modern state-capitalism, a course that suppresses liberalism’s essential and original historical context.

All these schools and thinkers emphasize the inescapability of liberal subjective experience once a person has experienced the conditions that give rise to liberal ideology. What distinguishes liberalism, what makes liberalism potentially insidious, is its incredible capacity to disguise its own contingency. Liberalism and its bedfellow positivism are products of specific historical, geopolitical, and cultural conditions in central and northern Europe five hundred years ago, conditions that persist in various forms to this day. But once you’re a liberal subject, you become almost totally blind to those conditions.

Karl Marx tried to glimpse reality outside liberalism. In doing so, however, he relied on dialectical materialism, an analytical method that owed as much to the historical conditions that produced liberalism as liberalism itself. Marx preached historical contingency but could not himself escape the iron trap of contingency. Furthermore, dialectical materialism was nearly as totalizing as liberal ideology but not nearly as successful in its resistance to critique. Still, Marx was as successful as anyone in his attempt to expose liberalism’s machinery.

The problem Marx faced was the persistence of individual subjectivity, the ghost in the liberal machine. We are attached, addicted, to ourselves as liberal subjects. If liberalism is a virus, then the tragedy of twentieth-century Communism is that it tried to cure an ideological infection by smashing the material conditions that, in Marxist theory, exposed people to the initial infection. To treat the virus, the Communists beat the body to death. This is how you get the famines and gulags and 100 million souls, much vaunted by Prager University, who lost their lives under Communist regimes. The hundreds upon hundreds of millions of people who were enslaved and murdered under the machinations of capitalism are rendered invisible in the liberal imagination because a) those victims are spread across five centuries and b) the logic of liberalism renders liberal subjects incapable of viewing liberalism as an ideological force with specific, political, life-and-death consequences—to say nothing of viewing liberalism as a sometimes malevolent force.

Within the liberal imagination, Communism and other of liberalism’s ideological competitors are always constructed, always artificial, always enforced on people. Liberalism, by contrast, is always discovered, always natural, always reflective of human nature.

Communist regimes did frequently try to combat liberal infection through direct ideological transformation rather than through brute political or economic manipulation. They tried not only to change the relations of production, and so change the dominant ideology, but to challenge the dominant ideology—the liberal way of being human—within people’s actual minds. In so doing, they devised some of their strangest, most terrifying policies. Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution reflects the most extreme attempt by any Communist government to expel liberal ideology. People were taunted, harassed, beaten, and murdered for possessing a “bourgeois” or “imperialist” mindset. Mao loyalists—those who subscribed to “Mao Zedong thought”—could accuse a simple artisan or teacher of thought crimes on the flimsiest evidence. A simple word or gesture could destroy a person’s life. A shop or restaurant owner could be subjected to a struggle session not merely for operating a business, but for using politically incorrect words (“royal,” for instance, or “palace”) in their business’s name.

Even the Bolsheviks, who were far less radical than Mao, fretted over liberalism’s resistance to treatment. Throughout the years that preceded the October Revolution and the early days of the Soviet Union, Lenin and his compatriots debated which aspects of social life—for instance, the nuclear family—contributed to bourgeois liberal subjectivity and should therefore be eradicated (they ultimately decided that the nuclear family was compatible with Communism, at least for the time being). If you said the wrong word or expressed the wrong sentiment, you could be subject to reeducation. The whole concept of “reeducation” hinged on the recognition that liberalism could not be cured by a change in economic relations alone. You could endlessly reorganize the gears in the machine, but that does you no good if you can’t eradicate the ghost.

Liberalism presents itself as an apotheosis of human knowledge and experience, an endpoint of history, that recalls the vast systems that Hegel sketched out in his mature works. Some theorists have explicitly adopted these terms in their analysis of liberalism. They have concluded that liberalism does not simply behave like any other totalizing, hegemonic ideology, capable of absorbing critiques and adjusting to its own contradictions. They have concluded that liberalism is actually distinct from other totalizing, hegemonic ideologies, that it is capable not only of absorbing and adjusting to its own contradictions but that it actually synthesizes the contradictions of all preceding ideologies. In this view, which is practically theological, liberalism does not merely seem like the final accumulation of human knowledge and experience: it actually is that final accumulation. It transcends its historical contingency and achieves universality.

The most famous articulator of this view is Francis Fukuyama. His thesis of “the end of history,” devised in the heady days after European Communism’s collapse, has been subsequently mocked by critics as comically naïve. The seriousness with which many scholars and journalists had taken Fukuyama’s thought seemed embarrassing after September 11 2001, when the “clash of civilization” thesis became a favorite point of reference among diagnosticians of the zeitgeist. It seemed all the more embarrassing after the 2008 recession and the subsequent explosion of capitalist-skeptical populism, the right-wing iteration of which fueled Brexit, Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, and a resurgence of fascist parties throughout the West. By 2022, reports of history’s death had clearly been exaggerated. Consider the following: China’s geopolitical ascendance and Xi Jinping’s new spin on “Socialism with Chinese Characteristics”; the sudden democratic deficit and reversal of ’90s-style liberalization throughout the world, from India to South America to Eastern Europe; Vladimir Putin’s success at developing and maintaining authoritarian rule in Russia and his invasion of Ukraine, beginning in 2014 and accelerating in February 2022; and, not least, the havoc wreaked by the COVID-19 pandemic, the consequences of which we are only beginning to grasp.

All this should have caused Fukuyama to reassess his thesis, and, in his defense, he has. He tempered his earlier claims with new analyses of the role of identity and the nation-state within liberalism. Both identity and nation-states grind along with the wheels of history, and so capital-H Historical analysis—the kind we associate with Hegel, Marx, and other big thinkers—once again plays a role in Fukuyama’s thought.

But I would challenge Fukuyama’s critics to engage not only with his most recent work, but to reassess his 1989 thesis on history’s end. Although I disagree with Fukuyama’s original thesis that liberal democracy represented an end-stage in historical and political development, and although many events since 1989 seem to repudiate that thesis, the fact remains no major ideological, political, or historical force has yet emerged to challenge liberalism.

Yes, political energy is manifest all over the world, energy on both the left and the right, in clear opposition to liberalism. But none of this energy is a) fully articulated in ideological terms outside a liberal framework or b) aligned with any kind of real political power or economic forces that do not accommodate our liberal-capitalist hegemony.

When I say “ideological terms outside a liberal framework” and “real political power,” I am not talking about ideas from a democratic socialist rally or a national conservativism conference, and I am not talking about grassroots organization or enthusiasm for charismatic politicians. I am not talking about disenchantment with capitalism and skepticism about democratic processes, and I am not talking about rising nationalism, populism, and authoritarianism. I am not even talking about illiberalism within real-world governments in countries like Hungary, Brazil, Turkey, India, and Russia. I am not talking about illiberalism at all.

I am talking about the kind of ideological framework and political power that the Soviet Union possessed. That kind of world-historical threat to the liberal order involved reams of theory, well-wrought praxis, leverage over a geopolitically significant chunk of the planet, control over the economic and political conditions of millions, and a shit ton of nuclear weapons.

Liberalism today has all of that, and then some. Meanwhile, the illiberal nations of the world not only lack necessary political leverage over the global economy, but they also struggle to maintain leverage over their neighbors. Russia’s sphere of influence barely extends beyond Belarus, Transnistria, and the various ‘Stans. Putin could not even maintain his hold on the Donbas without launching a full-scale assault on Kyiv, and now the Ukrainian military has attacked Crimea.

But beyond their lack of real geopolitical heft, the illiberal nations of the world are just, well, illiberal. Emphasis on the il. Putin and others who want to challenge liberal hegemony nevertheless define their projects purely in terms of…liberalism. Yes, sure, Putin subscribes to mystical nineteenth-century ideas about Russian providentialism, and Viktor Orban has his “Christian Democracy” nonsense. But all of that is little more than “not liberalism.” As Fukuyama would point out, any successor ideology to liberalism would have to challenge liberalism, not merely oppose it, with positive political and ideological force. Economic conditions would have to arise that significantly undercut liberal hegemony, not merely carve out an ideological space within a bubble of “not liberalism.”

The only potential challenger to liberal-capitalist hegemony in the world today is China. But Chinese power is almost entirely economic, and, because of its mercantilism and its reliance on Western consumers, China is actually quite economically vulnerable. What leverage it has over the West is compromised by its reliance on the West. At the very least, China has hitched its wagon to global capitalism, the economic system that undergirds liberal hegemony. Whatever ideological system may be developing from Socialism with Chinese Characteristics is, for now, consumed by internal contradictions and basically incoherent.

Given this state of opposition to liberal hegemony, we can reasonably assert that, even if history has not ended, it is at least paused.

What, then, could immanentize a post-liberal eschaton? Take your pick. In his 2022 book, The Power of Crisis, political scientist and Davos frequenter Ian Bremmer identified three unique challenges that could completely reorganize political and economic conditions over the next hundred years: global pandemics, climate change, and the emergence of viable Artificial Intelligence technology. I do not always (or usually) agree with Bremmer, but this is a decent list. After the Russian invasion of Ukraine, we might return nuclear war to the list of potentially apocalyptic scenarios.

Whatever forces liberalism to its end, I am confident of four things:

First, liberalism will end. As long as humans organize themselves into political communities, history will continue and ideological dominants will emerge and recede.

Second, the process of liberalism’s demise will, like its birth, take centuries to unfold. Those who fear the end of liberalism fear their own death, the death of their liberal subjectivity. But the death of liberal subjectivity will happen so slowly that nobody will notice it, and so nobody will miss it, just as nobody misses medieval subjectivity or pagan subjectivity.

Third, whatever emerges to replace liberalism, we cannot imagine or describe it now, nor can we do anything to hasten its coming. I do not believe we can steer ourselves out of liberalism, no matter how organized, revolutionary, or long-term our politics may be. Dominant ideologies emerge and recede at a glacial pace in response to a near-infinite number of historical, economic, and ideational factors. What’s more, no one can really think their way out of a dominant ideology. To intentionally supplant liberalism with something else would require us to imagine something else, something total and world-historical. Such a task is impossible because our imaginations are limited by liberalism.

Finally, contra the integralists, the end of liberalism will not involve the reestablishment of Christendom by the Vatican.

Liberalism is one way of being human; it deceives us into believing that it is the only way to be human. Integralists, like Nietzsche and the Marxists, propose another way to be human. They wish to encourage the dispersal and propagation of a successor ideology. Like Nietzsche, the integralists frame a novel ideology in terms of an almost mythic, pre-liberal past. Like the Marxists, the integralists hope to achieve a novel ideology through political means, even if their actual political proposals are vague (their proposals are vague, I think, because their actual political ideas would be abhorrent to the democratic majority).

Within the liberal imagination, Communism and other of liberalism’s ideological competitors are always constructed, always artificial, always enforced on people. Liberalism, by contrast, is always discovered, always natural, always reflective of human nature.

I sympathize with almost any project that attempts to imagine a world after liberalism; this is one of the reasons I admire Marx so much. I part ways with Marx over his conviction that such a dramatic change as the end of liberal ideological hegemony can be achieved through political means. Nevertheless, I find any attempt, however futile, to imagine a post-liberal order inherently fascinating. In my upcoming posts, I will examine the integralist project more closely and consider the ideology it imagines.

I have chosen to title this series of posts on integralism Ecce homo, the Latin translation of the phrase Pilate used when he presented Jesus to the throng. As most of you know, the phrase translates into English as “behold, the man.” Liberalism inaugurated our modern sense of individuality, our modern belief in the individual subject, and our modern conception of the human as such. We might imagine the first liberals arriving on the stage of Western history under a banner inscribed with the words Ecce homo.

This idea, that liberalism is responsible for our conception of the human as such, is much older than the writings of Michel Foucault, but it finds one of its fullest expressions in his work. At the conclusion of one of his early books, The Order of Things (1966), Foucault wrote:

…man is neither the oldest nor the most constant problem that has been posed for human knowledge. Taking a relatively short chronological sample within a restricted geographical area—European culture since the sixteenth century—one can be certain that man is a recent invention within it. It is not around him and his secrets that knowledge prowled for so long in the darkness. In fact, among all the mutations that have affected the knowledge of things and their order, the knowledge of identities, differences, characters, equivalences, words—in short, in the midst of all the episodes of that profound history of the Same—only one, that which began a century and a half ago and is now perhaps drawing to a close, has made it possible for the figure of man to appear. And that appearance was not the liberation of an old anxiety, the transition into luminous consciousness of an age-old concern, the entry into objectivity of something that had long remained trapped within beliefs and philosophies: it was the effect of a change in the fundamental arrangements of knowledge. As the archaeology of our thought easily shows, man is an invention of recent date. And one perhaps nearing its end.

If those arrangements were to disappear as they appeared, if some event of which we can at the moment do no more than sense the possibility—without knowing either what its form will be or what it promises—were to cause them to crumble, as the ground of Classical thought did, at the end of the eighteenth century, then one can certainly wager that man would be erased, like a face drawn in sand at the edge of the sea.

Thinkers from across the political and ideological spectrum have articulated similar accounts of the human as Foucault’s, if not always in terms as rigidly historicist as his. Whatever Foucault’s limitations as a thinker, my posts on integralism and liberalism will be guided in part by the above quote.

The liberal subject is a recent arrival in human history. It is the product of a specific time and place: central and northern Europe during the Reformation and the Enlightenment. Our commitment to liberalism is, in this view, as historically, culturally, and economically contingent as a Chinese folk religion’s commitment to animism. Do the integralists offer a path into the future by way of the past, a path beyond liberalism inspired by earlier Christian conceptions of the human and of politics? Or is integralism itself, in its reaction against liberalism, actually defined by liberalism and its core assumptions? Will we in the West remain trapped in our liberal selves, as Fukuyama speculated, floating lazily through post-history? Or is there something else on the horizon, beyond the edge of the sea?

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