Sunday, August 8, 2021

The Modern Project: Fanaticism Disguised as Realism

The Modern Project: Fanaticism Disguised As Realism

Peter Schultz


            In an essay entitled “The Heavenly City of Business,” Eugene McCarraher provides an illustration of the fanaticism that is buried in the modern project. Quoting New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman:


“For globalization to work, America can’t be afraid to act like the almighty superpower it is. The hidden hand will not work with a hidden fist. McDonald’s cannot flourish without McDonnell-Douglas, the designer of the F-15, and the hidden fist that keeps the world safe for Silicon Valley’s technology is called the United States Army, Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corps.” [p. 186 in The Short American Century, ed. by Andrew Bacevich]


            As McCarraher goes on, calling attention to “the religiosity” of Friedman’s language, that “Friedman salts his edict in unmistakably religious language.“ Thus, “…we glimpse an eschatological vision;….the commodity as sacramental token, material conveying the essence of the American spirit; understand corporate expansion culminating in judgment rendered and punishment administered.” [p. 188]


            There is, it seems to me, a fanaticism buried deep within the modern project or, it might be said, lying at the very heart of the modern project. As McCarraher points out, “Eschatology is always a narrative for a just and beloved community, ample with delight, innocent of violence, and complete and unceasing fulfillment. We long, as Augustine put it, for a ‘heavenly city’” but end up with “facsimiles of heaven that sometimes achieve imperial dimensions.” [188] And, of course, as Friedman’s argument illustrates, these facsimiles are only made possible and maintained by violence. And this fanaticism has been embedded in America’s history for a long, long time.


“…the American drive for global domination was not some fall from a state of republican grace that occurred after 1945. The roots of the modern American Century lie in an indomitable conviction, first articulated in Puritan theology, that business success was a sign of God’s providence and a token benediction for mastery over others.” [189]


            It has been argued persuasively that the moderns, that is, Machiavelli and those who have followed him, “lowered the standards,” that is, the ends sought in order to guarantee success. Hence, these moderns have been labeled “realists,” who, unlike the “ancients” such as Plato and Aristotle, rejected “idealism.” As Machiavelli wrote in The Prince, he was not interested in imaginary republics but was, rather, interested in “the effectual truth.” He was interested in “what works,” and was unconcerned with imagining the best political order.


            If, however, in place of saying the moderns have lowered the standards we say that they politicized the standards, a different picture emerges. By politicizing the standards I mean they sought success, worldly success consisting of security, prosperity, some liberty, and generally “the amelioration of the human condition” in this world. To succeed in this fashion, the most important ingredients are power, overwhelming power, and a willingness and ability to use it, even in what Machiavelli described as “inhumanly cruel” ways. Or as Hamilton said in the Federalist, “secrecy, energy, and dispatch” are the key ingredients in any government worthy of the name.


            But it seems that in order to use such power in such ways, it is necessary to embrace the idea that the results will be worth it. That is, it is necessary for those with the power and those who have legitimized its use to believe that the results will be a transformed world, a world that is a “just and beloved community, ample with delight, innocent of violence, and complete and unceasing in fulfillment.” That is, it is necessary for those with the power and those legitimizing its use to believe that they can create heavenly cities here on earth. And, of course, once that is believed, then those who stand in the way of such a world must be dominated or even exterminated.

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