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Religion & Liberty: Volume 28, Number 3

The politics of apocalypse

"Disarmageddon” is what The Economist earlier this year called “complacent, reckless leaders” who “have forgotten how valuable it is to restrain nuclear weapons.” The politics of nuclear weapons – deterrence doctrines, mutually assured destruction and so on – have been the obsessive stuff of international politics since the Manhattan Project. There is, as Alissa Wilkinson and I argue in our 2015 book How to Survive the Apocalypse, something unique about the nuclear age, in which it becomes terrifyingly clear that human beings could end up as authors of their own destruction. The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists has run a clock on the odds, a literal Doomsday Clock, since 1947.

Debates in religious communities have run hot over things like nuclear weapons, regarding not only the use of them (which most are absolutely against) but also the possession of them. The anxiety that we have spent the last 60 years or so in creating the architecture of our own destruction is hard to miss. But nuclear weapons are just the tip of the iceberg of the politics of apocalypse, the most visible and spectacular perhaps, but a piece of a plague of fears and uncertainties about what it means to be human and whether the systems and institutions of our design have not, in some way, changed or challenged basic aspects of our humanity. Underneath tongue-in-cheek headlines like “Is Google Making You Stupid?” or the addictive isolation of Instagram posturing is a kind of technological pessimism that shows our scientific optimism of the post-war period is running out of steam. We have made marvels, great and terrible, and now that our machines are loose upon the world, like Frankenstein, we have a moment of real pause about whether we might have gone too far and whether we can still control the devices of our making – or if they now control us.

Many technologies are, of course, new and so we sometimes suffer socially from the kind of lapses in memory that come from our progressive and presentist worldview; that our problems are not like anything in history and all of history has been a long story of progress to produce us. But like nuclear weapons, technology itself is only a manifestation – albeit often a concentrated one – of the underlying anxieties embedded in the “modern moral order.” The “problem” of our age, pundits are often apt  to wax, is “technology” (kids on their phones) or, of late, “late-stage liberalism” (kids on their phones) or some other feature of modern life whose intensification has undermined or challenged our humanity. In fact, these social and political manifestations are older than we usually recognize. Alissa and I draw out three pathologies of the modern moral order, a sort of unholy trinity around which our politics of apocalypse often gravitates: (1) individualism and authenticity, (2) consequentialism and (3) the loss of freedom.

Individualism, authenticity and you

Philosopher Charles Taylor calls the decisive shift in the modern moral order an anthropocentric turn, by which he means a kind of optionality that emerges for people about whether and what to believe. Human beings become the center of this universe, not gods or God or a cosmic hierarchy of whatever, but people themselves who have existential choices of real weight to make about who they are, what they will become and what they are for. Not coincidentally, just as this turn was happening in hearts and minds, human beings were also busy building the bulwarks of what would become the anthropocene, what scientists as well as social scientists could describe as a period on the planet when human activity has become the dominant influence. These are hardly unrelated. Just as humans are busy now creating their own moral universes of meaning, so we are also busy making and remaking the material universe, the very stuff of the planet and maybe, eventually, beyond. We have become like gods, though the jury on the quality of our divinity is very much out.

We have become like gods, though the jury on the quality of our divinity is very much out.

Of course, a number of new problems are raised in this kind of a universe, especially for the very young. Without the backdrop of history and tradition, it is difficult for individuals to situate themselves in a cosmos derived of obvious meaning. It is as though, leaning on generations of science, history and theology we cut the ladder out from under the next generation and asked them what they think being human means. But we are creatures of metaphor, of modeling and of mimicking; it is hard to know how to behave or how to live without these sources. We are told to be authentic to ourselves, to take the road less traveled, to bracket our parents and our upbringing and to find out what is most true to ourselves. Yet most of us seem to have found this isolating and even disempowering rather than empowering.

There is always a backdrop of society, history and tradition, even if we try to ignore or fight against it. Even our petty rebellions are fueled by our intellectual, spiritual and biological parents. There is no escaping them. There is also, in a more profound sense, no escaping certain laws of nature and human life. We can make what we want of our moral universe, but certain behaviors eventually degrade and destroy. “Love is love” may be the chant of our sexual liberation, but nature is totally indifferent to our trivial revolts. The fecundity of childbearing and birth obeys laws we cannot change.

Has technological revolution fueled and intensified the drive to authenticity? I certainly think it has, but it has hardly created the drive or the fragmentation of individualism. It has, at best, been a catalyst of certain underlying assumptions – like authenticity – written into our machines and their programs. It has enabled and extended this drive, but the crisis of authenticity did not arrive with Instagram. Instagram intensified and enlarged and then made money off it.

Consequentialism and the crisis of ethics

The political and social problems with individualism and authenticity have been catalogued aplenty, but at least one of them is the crisis of ethics that emerges in a universe of individual meaning makers. It is a question of not only what to believe or live for but also how we should get there.

At least part of the problem with late-stage liberalism is that the ground rules of social engagement atrophy under the weight of successively individual universes. What, after all, is a common life if it is predicated only on everyone being able to pursue, as far as they are able, what they believe to be their own, authentic way of being and living? Can social and political bonds survive this kind of fragmentation, and even if they could, how do we adjudicate when those moral universes conflict? This is not merely a philosophical question, of course. The limits of pluralism are probably at the heart of contemporary debates over immigration, trade, globalism and so on. Communities that have, or feel they have, defined ends and ethics are increasingly alarmed by the prospect of inducting members who they do not believe share either those ends or those ethics. It is one thing to say we may have different views of the good life and the ends to which human life is aimed. It is quite another to say our views diverge so widely that we no longer agree on the ground rules around which people of plural perspectives can meaningfully engage or live.

This is also what political scientists call the Rule of Law. And the legal sphere has been very busy trying to somehow make sense of the moral tangle that individualism and consequentialism have made. In its most radical form (which rarely occurs, I think), an anthropocentric worldview that places the self and its meaning at the center presumably does not need also to adopt a social ethics that validates and makes space for other people pursuing their own meaning and ends. In other words, we end up with an ethics of ends, of consequences, not of means, and those ends are defined often on the basis of what is true for me, for my self-actualization. Why should someone else’s view or life interfere with my actualization and authenticity? Only the coercive power of the increasingly illegitimate state can force concessions to others, but no state in the world is so powerful that it can enforce pluralism on a wide scale. Most political communities, to survive, need day-to-day assent from their members, including on basic things like legitimacy.

A political and social ethics of consequentialism, what achieves my or our ends without much fuss about means, now seems to culturally dominate American public life. Anything outside of the person, including potentially other people, becomes so much grist for the mill of self actualization. Nobody and nothing are intrinsically owed anything, except perhaps if I voluntarily contract or opt into an arrangement (which raises trouble for communities we are born into without our consent, including states and families). Again, our machines intensify and extend but hardly invent this logic. Cyber-utopians imagined that digital spaces would create a new, wider venue for pluralism to take flight. In some cases, this may have happened. But our alarm is now focused on the kind of digital cul-de-sacs in which radicalization of groups is the rule and social ethics is the collateral damage. We are beginning to lose not only civility but also the skill of disagreement. Locked into a kind of evolutionary fight-or-flight in our public life, technologies have embedded and extended this pathology of the modern moral order.

The loss of freedom

For half a century the debate has raged on about who was right, Aldous Huxley or George Orwell, twin 20th-century dystopias of modern society long predicted a century earlier by Alexis de Tocqueville in Democracy in America. The political temptations generated by individualism and consequentialism have long run along the gambit of two broad options: tyranny, or the enforcement of a kind of civil-religious order that precludes pluralism outside the boundary of state-defined limits, or fragmentation, also a kind of tyranny in which citizens opt out of larger social and political concerns.

This, some have been arguing, is endemic of the larger trajectory of liberalism. Since it does not itself, by design, sustain or project a kind of existential ordering of virtues for a free society, it depends on a citizenry being formed in other places to value the things it uses to generate the rule of law: fairness, tolerance, decency, modesty, patience, so on. But when it is no longer clear that the individual moral universes of citizens, or the moral universes of welcomed strangers, can generate or sustain these virtues in the long run, then the political order buckles and fractures until it becomes a kind of empty proceduralism, a facilitator with constantly contested limits, of individual desire.

“There are certain mistakes we can only make once, as the Doomsday Clock ticks on.”

This is an overly dire picture of late-stage liberalism, in my opinion, but also a rather fashionable one that alerts us to a key feature of the politics of apocalypse: It is hard to chart a different course from either fragmentation and fracture or tyranny and coercion. Depending on which pundits you favor, we are very busy tracking either one of those courses, and in fact both are probably on some level right. In some respects, our systems and institutions are enlarging fracture and fragmentation, while in others the state is enlarging itself in an act of self-protection to prevent a pluralism so wide that it can no longer tolerate the state or its presumed values.

Not accidentally, in both Orwell’s and Huxley’s worlds, technology was a key facilitator. It did not invent the human vices that were magnified and globalized, but these societies would also not be possible without the ability to control information, redact and modify it, alter human reproduction (a key in both dystopias), inhibit and channel desire, and so on. The underlying anxiety in this loss of freedom is not only that the systems and machines of our design might have politics themselves embedded within them, but that the power and scale of those systems and machines means we mere mortals may no longer be able to escape them.

How to be human in the anthropocene

The magnifying element that technology plays in the modern moral order is not that somehow these problems are endemic or original to technological societies. Rather, it is that we have designed systems and machines of such extraordinary power and scale that we are no longer able to get outside of the problems endemic to them. We are, in other words, trapped in a kind of deterministic cycle, not unable by human nature to overcome certain kinds of problems, but unable now because of the systems and machines we inherit to resolve certain basic problems of the modern moral order.

This, at least, is somewhat original to our age. Worldviews and societies rise and fall through human history, but this is the first time we may take the planet with us. This is what we mean by the politics of apocalypse. Being human in the anthropocene raises the stakes on our common life in a way that is at least unusual in human history. There are certain mistakes we can only make once, as the Doomsday Clock ticks on.

But we must also not be one-sided in our telling of these politics. Apocalypse is not merely a watchword for punishing, global catastrophe. Catastrophe, indeed, is usually a feature of any apocalypse worthy of its name, but the Greek root of it is the same as the last word of the Christian New Testament: Revelation. As humankind struggles with its apocalyptic powers, it struggles to understand its place in the cosmos, the true meaning of not only our individual lives and struggles but also that of human life as a whole. The real meaning of Revelation is not destruction, but comfort. The book under that name was written to Christians badly in need not of the kind of pessimism porn that casually dominates our media. They, like us, knew about their problems. That book was written to reveal the true nature and dignity of life, to pull back the curtain of uncertainty and offer the comfort of a Kingship whose reign has already begun and whose completeness we await.

To be human in the anthropocene is to be attentive to the double edge of the politics of apocalypse. Yes, there is the anxiety, the fear, the uncertainty—the stakes we have made and are making in our world. But there is also the cross pressure of a missing, longed-for revelation of comfort and hope. Our machines may be mighty, but they are not Almighty. And the recovery of that humility also brings us hope in the midst of troubled times.

Robert J. Joustra (Ph.D., University of Bath) is the editor of the Public Justice Review at the Center for Public Justice and founding director of the Center for Christian Scholarship at Redeemer University College (Toronto, Canada), where he also teaches politics and international studies. He is the author, with Alissa Wilkinson, of How to Survive the Apocalypse and The Religious Problem with Religious Freedom: Why Foreign Policy Needs Political Theology.