“Augustinian” Theology and the Republican/Libertarian Denial of Society

Posted on October 12, 2010


In the foregoing posts, I chronicle how libertarian ideology has led the Republican Party astray, misleading the American public about the real problems and solutions for our common challenges.  The resurgence of libertarian ideology started during the late 1970’s and the 1980’s when the post-WWII consensus about how advanced industrial societies should be governed came under question after the Vietnam War, the 1970’s energy crisis, and bouts of inflation.  One of the more important Transatlantic figures in the resurgent right was British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, whose electoral victory in 1979 showed the way for Ronald Reagan’s electoral win in 1980.  As a conservative MP of a new school, Thatcher was a student of the founder of neo-liberalism, Friedrich von Hayek, who attempted to create an economics based almost exclusively upon the action of individuals in the marketplace.  Thatcher’s 1987 statement “that there is no such thing as society..only individuals and families” is an almost programmatic expression of Hayek’s beliefs and economic prescriptions.

While Thatcher apparently tried to back away from this statement in her memoirs, the absurdity of it has not been fully exposed and explored, given that at the time it was uttered, neoliberalism was in the ascendant and has continued to have an inordinate influence over political discourse in all parts of the political spectrum.   Blindness to or denial of society runs throughout the libertarian/neoliberal philosophy; economic policy prescriptions from most political groupings to this day are marked by the avoidance of viewing society as a system or whole.  Though President Obama is nominally from a political tradition that believes in government as an integrative force in society, his utterances in his first years in office have tended to support or be only mildly critical of this ongoing denial of how society and the economy function as a system; he has instituted policies that support social systems in a manner that is, to the say the least, subtle and seems half-hearted.  He and the Democrats are now harvesting the consequences of their neglect of these issues.

On the other side of the aisle in American politics, an almost unanimous consensus supports a continuing denial of society.  Even a supposedly moderate Republican, like NJ Governor Chris Christie has been swept up this reflexive denial of the need for government to address systemic failures and gaps.

“Augustinian” Neo-classical Economists and Right-wingers

In his provocative book, “Economics as Religion”, Robert H Nelson analyzes the division of economics into schools as a function of economics being not a science but a theological enterprise within which there are various schools.  While I disagree with some of Nelson’s conclusions and analysis, he presents an interesting thesis for explaining how trends in economics have reduced the focus of certain schools of economics to the sum of the fates of individual economic actors.  In discussing the influential conservative Chicago School of economists, Nelson believes that their relentless preference for individual solutions or society as composed of individual corporations and consumers is analogous to or even originates in a theological preference that emerged in the influential early Christian theologian/philosopher Augustine of Hippo.  As Nelson believes that all economics has a theological component, he is not branding the Chicago school with this theological label.  I believe Nelson’s argument would be stronger and more interesting if he had unpacked more what “theological” means to him, including an examination of philosophical and metaethical issues that economics raises, independent of religion.

Despite these reservations, Nelson has opened up an interesting line of inquiry.  Nelson points out that Augustinian theology, as set out in City of God, focuses on the salvation of individual souls rather than the restoration of the real physical community of people.  Augustine apparently wrote City of God in response to Romans’ questioning of the official Christian religion of the Roman Empire after the sack of Rome by the Visigoths in 410.   Christianity became a tolerated then the official religion of the Western Roman Empire after the Emperor Constantine converted to Christianity almost 100 years before Augustine, though the process of Christianization was still ongoing at the time of Augustine.  Some Romans blamed the abandonment of the old Roman gods for the weakening empire.  A convert to Christianity himself, Augustine argued back that what mattered was not the fallen “City of Man” (worldly society) but the ascension of individuals to the City of God.  I am not an expert on Christian theology but am recapitulating here Nelson’s argument.

In retrospect, Augustine’s focus on individual conversion and salvation meshes well with the time in which he lived where secular authorities (Roman emperors and the Roman army) were losing control of the Roman Empire and gradually, over a period of centuries, the Roman Catholic Church would become the most powerful institution in Europe.  However, at the time, Augustine apparently thought of himself as contributing to the governance of Christian Rome, though thereby condemning the “City of Man”.  Augustine’s preference for spiritual over worldly matters has an interesting counterpoint or source in his struggles with his own lustful behavior, including having a mistress.

Nelson’s hypothesis is that the focus on individual economic “salvation” by economists echoes Augustine’s approach to Christianity.  The Chicago School in particular has emphasized how economics should be viewed as a market struggle between individual economic actors rather than the regulation of a large-scale composite social system with its own qualities.  The dismissal by the Chicago School and other anti-Keynesians of the need by government to manage, among other things aggregate demand, echoes to some degree Augustine’s dismissal of the “City of Man” as being intrinsically “fallen” and therefore not worth attending to.

Protestantism, Economics and Individual Salvation

Augustine, though crucial to Roman Catholic theology, was also claimed by a number of founders of Protestant sects, including John Calvin and Martin Luther, as being a close cousin to their efforts to “re-individualize” Christianity.  The focus upon a return to individual experience, reading of the Bible, and faith rather than good works (in the form of payments to the Catholic Church) was part of the experience by which Protestantism gained adherents, in part in protest of corruption within the Roman Church.

Max Weber famously linked the rise of capitalism to what he called the Protestant Ethic, though a recent historical study casts doubt on a direct link between confessional membership and business activity in early modern Europe.

In historical time, the effects of Protestantism, in particular the revival of fundamentalist Protestantism in North America in the last 40 years, would seem to be closer in time and in influence than Augustine’s work, which is claimed by Catholics, Protestants and some secular philosophers as well.  Why Nelson decided to focus on ancient history in the person of Augustine rather than more recent Protestant theology is not clear to me in my first reading of his work.

The Denial of Society, Individual Fates and Society’s Fate

Whatever the religious sources or influences on economists and politicians, what is certain is that right-wing politicians influenced by libertarianism and their reading of neoclassical economics deny the reality of a composite society that requires the attention of leaders and citizens.  The call is for attention to be paid to society as a series of individuals or corporations with greater or lesser value without a corresponding holistic view of that economy or society.  Society’s fate, if it is considered at all, is considered to be an “additive” process by which each of these individual fates are considered individually and then summed.   More likely, most contemporary Republicans are no longer focused on even the attempt to collect data about social welfare from individuals and simply are treating society, as in Mrs. Thatcher’s quote, as if it didn’t exist as a system.

Furthermore, there is the widespread cultural influence of  the “conversion experience” of which Augustine’s was one of the first, that emphasized the inner experience of the individual over that of society.   The narrative of an individual saving his or her soul from the social “rot” surrounding him or her is central to at least the formative years of the Roman Church, as well as the Protestant Reformation.  Christianity’s early success as a religion and cultural phenomenon has something to do with both its evangelical nature as well as its adaptation to the collapse of the Roman secular social order in the era of antiquity.  The “attachment” of the Christian religion to individual experience enabled it to weather social fragmentation and the multi-national, multi-ethnic migrations and clashes of the chaotic late period of late antiquity and the early Middle Ages.  In the late Middle Ages and Renaissance, the social order dominated by the Catholic Church was challenged once again by, among other dynamics, the individual focus of Protestantism.

If there are Christian and non-Christian people then who equate their spiritual health with a rejection of society as a “fallen world” then it makes sense that there would be politicians, supported it seems by some schools of economists, who would confidently act as if one could ignore society as a system or a whole.  Re-enacting the drama of “giving up on” the Roman Empire has then a vague theological support or forerunner, even if it is, in my view, morally suspect.  “Save yourself” says the authoritative theology, “and abandon (corrupt) society”.  To Republicans influenced by libertarianism, the latter instruction certainly would explain their abandonment of building a better society for all, though these are, of course, my words.

OK as Religion, Deadly as Political Ideology

People are entitled to believe all kinds of metaphysical ideas; metaphysical beliefs of whatever variety may be necessary for people to live full lives.  However, the notion that political leaders are contending for public office with the idea that they are “giving up on society” and consigning our fates to the idea that we will be “saved” one individual at a time should be blasphemy in whatever religion or ethical system to which these leaders subscribe.

Why contend for leadership if one believes that the grouping of which one is striving for leadership doesn’t exist or should go out of existence in some ideal world?  Would these people not be in essence saboteurs, achieving what hundreds of terrorists could not?

Acting and planning as if there is no society would be fitting for nihilistic poets, social recluses, or members of millenarian religious sects but in political leaders this is a deadly exercise which will end badly.

We have, as a striking example, the recent refusal by New Jersey governor Chris Christie to participate in the building of a new rail tunnel into New York, even as $6 billion of subsidies from the federal government and the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey were being offered.  While the design and cost of these tunnels was controversial, Christie simply withdrew from the whole project of linking New Jersey, defined in part by its proximity to New York and the rest of the New York area, via rail to the regional hub.  No alternative offer was made, presumably for Christie to claim that this project was part of the “fallen world” of Democratic politics and union influence.

Frankly, I think the project was not ambitious enough in its design as it did not provide enough connectivity within New York between in-bound New Jersey trains, the subways, present and future long-distance rail.  In a post-oil world, New York will need multiple such tunnels and be linked to its surroundings as well as the nation by a high-speed electric rail system.  Democrats are not moving aggressively enough towards that goal and leave themselves and the projects they support open to carping and sabotage, though no real alternatives from Republicans. If Christie were to grapple with the issue and attempt to propose a better design for the project, he would be a hero.  But instead he is decamping from the role of governing New Jersey and planning for the future.

With leaders and wannabe leaders like these, who needs terrorists, trading partners who rig the game or external enemies?