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The "Collective of Concupiscence" and how boring it all is

posted Feb 9, 2018, 5:38 AM by Carmina Chapp

There is talk in some quarters of Oprah Winfrey running for President in 2020.  My response to this is, why not?  If Donald Trump can be President - - a man whose only qualification for the job seems to be that he is a rich celebrity - - then any rich celebrity can be President I guess.  What all of this probably points to, sadly, is how utterly exhausted and bankrupt our politics has become, with Americans by the millions turning away from the more experienced political insiders in favor of outsiders who promise us that they alone can provide the radical change that is needed. And everyone seems to agree that radical change is indeed needed, so long as "radical change" means ripping the Band-Aids off of everyone else's scabs but mine.  Radical change can also mean, rather simply, that you want the power that the ruling party possesses transferred to your party. Which is to say, no change at all, which is why you have to lie about it.  For example, in our last election, "Drain the swamp!" was the mantra of the Trump supporters.  But did anyone really expect that the man we elected, a swamp creature if ever there were one, would be able to do this?  And what, exactly, does one do with a drained swamp anyway??  Probably sell it to developers who would build overpriced, poorly made, beige and boring condos, nicely accessorized with a strip mall complete with a Dunkin Donuts and a Vape shop.  In other words, just a different kind of swamp.  The Democrats prefer the fevered swamp of coercive governmental power, whereas the Republicans prefer the fetid swamp of corporate greed.  So all we have really done is trade Lenin for Bezos.  

Oh, I can hear people now… "Damn it Chapp, you are always so negative about politics and 'Merica.  You have to live in the real world and the real world is never perfect!"  If you are in that cloud of critics then I can say to you that you are correct about one thing: nothing in this world is wholly perfect.  But that does not mean that there aren't degrees of imperfection.  To deny this is to deny that there is such a thing as truth - - a truth that acts as the barometer for all of our actions, political or otherwise.  Therefore, my claim is this, a claim that you can take or leave as you see fit, but a claim I stand by with full conviction: the contemporary American socio-economic-political system is predicated in a foundational way on a profound and tragic falsehood.  It is a false first principle shared by every major governmental and economic institution in this country and it stands in total contradiction to the Christian faith.  This false first principle can be stated simply and then its logical conclusions can be teased out as follows:  God is irrelevant to the construction of government and our public life together, which is to say, God does not exist, which is to say, nothing spiritual or supernatural exists, which is to say that we are all purely material beings with no purpose or goal or end beyond the satisfaction of our individual desires, which is to say that pleasure (the satisfaction of our base desires) is more rooted in reality than happiness (the joy and peace that comes from pursuing the higher spiritual realities like the moral good). Indeed, according to this false principle, the spiritual dimension of life and the moral good are, at best,  "noble lies", and at worst repressive illusions - - repressive since their pursuit often inhibits the attainment of pleasure. 

The late Italian philosopher, Augusto del Noce, building on this same insight (that our culture is founded on a false first principle: God does not matter), points out that the ruling philosophy that our culture has adopted as a replacement for God and religion is the philosophy known as "scientism".  In a nutshell, scientism is the belief that only the hard, empirical sciences give us access to truth.  Everything else is an illusion.  Therefore, when it comes to our common life together as a people - - a life that comes to be defined, regulated and controlled by government and corporate elites - - there is only one form of reason that is "allowed in" as proper public discourse.  And that is the language of science.  Furthermore, given our reduction of life to economics, what the elevation of science really means is the ascendency of "applied science" (technology) to pride of place.  Every aspect of our social life thus comes under the purview of governmental control, and all culture and every form of reason becomes a function of politics.  And this final step, the submission of culture to politics, is the very heart of totalitarianism.  Only, in this case, it is not the totalitarianism of the Nazis or the Stalinists or the Maoists - -brutal, bloody, and quite vulgar in its unsubtle use of blunt violence - - but rather the much more seductive totalitarianism of techno-nihilism, where our base bodily desires form what I call a "Collective of Concupiscence" which the government regulates and the economy inflames.  Our future is thus most likely to be a dystopian one.  But it won't be the dystopia of the concentration camp.  Rather, it will be Huxley's Brave New World with a Disneyland aesthetic. Because… you know… "family values".

You might think this is an exaggeration.  I don't think it is.  It is the logical conclusion of scientism no matter what our elites might say about our bold new future. Because, despite what scientism's popularizers (such as Carl Sagan and Richard Dawkins) might say in their more poetic moments when speaking about the "beauty" of the cosmos and of science, the fact is, if I am just an ape with a big brain, and an accidental byproduct of the cosmic chemistry of stardust remnants, then I really don't give a shit about some gaseous blob, or even a vast number of "billions and billions" of gaseous blobs, ten million light years away; or the "fascinating" mating rituals of fruit bats; or the "poetry" of soil regeneration through dung beetle digestive cycles.  In other words, when you are told endlessly that there is no meaning to existence, then guess what?  You actually start to think that way. And then everything loses its flavor. Everything starts to taste like rice cakes. Therefore, you cannot have it both ways. You cannot bleach divinity and Transcendence out of the cosmos and tell everyone that the whole affair is just an aimless and pointless accident, and then turn around and talk to us about the "moral necessity" of this or that urgent social cause. Why should I even care about the future of humanity itself?  Why should I care about the ultimate destiny of ambulatory, bipedal, chemistry sets?  

So really, it doesn't matter who is in power … Democrats or Republicans, Trump or Oprah, and it does not matter if we place more emphasis on the government to solve our problems or free enterprise economics.  Because our entire society operates according to the false premise I articulated above.  In that sense we are all Marxists now, insofar as Marx's controlling idea was the notion that the material world is all that exists and that economics drives everything.  And try as we might to deny that this materialistic view of existence is death to the higher functions of our soul, there is no escaping the fact that fewer and fewer people will devote themselves to higher pursuits, once the notions of God, Transcendence, purpose, meaning, the Good, and so on, are banished from our lexicon of acceptable ideas.  We will increasingly privilege pleasure over happiness, which is to say, we will privilege opioids, techno gadgets, virtual reality stimulation, porn, and various other forms of addiction.  We will be, if we aren't already, a nation of addicts.  Because if there is one thing we know about our bodily appetites it is that they are insatiable, requiring ever more of the same things to slake our rapacious desires.  But partaking of the same thing, addictively, over and over and over, is boring.  It crushes and kills the soul.  And so what we will really end up with is not a society of liberated selves, but a society of bored, libidinous, pleasure addicts trending toward suicidal despair.  

Furthermore, the fact of the matter is that we all share the same basic bodily appetites.  It does not matter if you are rich or poor, gay or straight, fat or skinny, old or young, or what race you are, or your ethnicity, or your political party, or if you prefer the vapid and brain dead banter of "Fox and Friends" over the vicious and pompous self-importance of the moronic ladies on "The View".  Once you take away the idea that human nature has a spiritual side that, you know, "trends upward", you are left with staring at your crotch or your gut or your veins.  This is, of course, absolutely true, but we ignore the downward spiral of our culture into techno-pagan bacchanalia because our affluent elites, the poor dears, have confused despairing addiction and the "dark" view of life it spawns, with sophistication, and count as "enlightenment" a cultivated anti-intellectual stupidity.   

I am struck, for example, by how many of the lead characters in shows made by Netflix or Amazon (especially detective shows) are depressive and "dark" souls, haunted by some hidden pain in their past that is the irritant in the oyster that creates the pearl of their genius.  So far so good, since we all have hidden pain in our lives, and the various things we all suffer from really are, quite often, the genesis of much depth and creativity.  But these characters are different.  They are nihilistic, often cruel, morally ambiguous, irreligious of course (duh), self-destructive, and live as radically atomized, alienated and isolated individuals devoid of love or meaningful relationships.  And if they do develop a relationship, it usually flounders on the shoals of the lead character's unfathomably dark pain. Or worse, the love interest is killed off, with a hefty dose of complicit guilt on the part of the lead character, further adding to his or her morose self-immolation. And all of this is portrayed as "sophisticated". (There are exceptions of course, but this is just an anecdotal and subjective impression I have of many of these shows).

The irritating thing about all of this, of course, is that it is just so puerile and shallow, with little justification for its pretentious dismissal of "God" or "the Good".  And it is unbearably boring and drab.  Is there anything more pitifully awful than being forced to listen to someone drone on and on about their "sexuality"?  By contrast, people only really become interesting when they differentiate themselves from one another, as true individuals, by cultivating the higher levels of the soul.  And this is done in many ways, even still today, because the fact is we ARE spiritual beings and the spiritual dimension of our existence cannot be snuffed out.  But those among us who still seek these things are becoming ever more rare, and are being forced into ghettos or isolated enclaves of activity, and frequently branded as bigots because we adhere to traditional religious views about God and such things.  It does appear, in other words, that the Collective of Concupiscence has fangs and claws, because at the end of the day, we are all "God haunted", which is why members of the Collective view traditional religious believers as their tormentors.  

However, sadly, gradually the creative power of the majority of people is being perverted and bent to serve the needs of the emerging political and economic collective - - the Collective of Concupiscence - - wherein the true "liberation" of your "identity" can only come about when all of those institutions that represent the values of the Spirit are branded as oppressors. We WILL be liberated, and we WILL use government to enforce that liberation, and we WILL demand that the economy provide us with the means to enjoy the fruits of that liberation.  Indeed, we will demand that the economy provide us with all of the gadgets and accouterments that we need to enhance our pleasures to unimaginable heights.  Welcome to the wacky, upside down world of the new "sophistication":  mass-produced individualism where radical "non conformity" means all public and, increasingly, private speech, will be policed, looking for any sign that someone has breached the canons of non-conforming orthodoxy.  So "individualism" here appears to mean its exact opposite.  But that is what you get in the Collective of Concupiscence.  Somewhere Orwell is smiling.

Peter Maurin lived before all of this technological wizardry was real.  But he lived in an age of totalitarianisms.  And he was a thinking Catholic.  Which means he had a deep prophetic insight into what was around the corner, so to speak.  And just as 
Rod Dreher, in his wonderful book, The Benedict Option, calls orthodox Christians to a deeper awareness of the profoundly anti-Christian challenges our culture is putting before us, so too did Peter Maurin warn us that the only way we will endure the coming storm of cultural barbarity is to form deeply intentional communities of Christian intellectual discourse, moral ecology, and liturgical practice. Not so that we can "escape" the world and shun our brothers and sisters who remain within it.  But so that we can know ourselves better and come closer to God so as to be better able to serve our neighbor in love.  The members of the Collective of Concupiscence are not our "enemies".  Indeed, we are, if we are honest, infected with the same bacillus as everyone else.  We are all in the Collective in one-way or another.  And so there is no question of abandoning the culture because that is, quite simply, neither desirable nor possible.  

But we cannot drink from the same poisonous well and so we must cultivate new sources of "living water" in order to share it with everyone.  And "everyone" means, literally, "everyone".  So please do not accuse me of "us vs. them" thinking.  That kind of approach is not an option for a Christian.  But if you do not "have" a Christian sensibility of the big questions of life, then by default you will "have" the template provided by our culture.  I will end therefore with an old Latin phrase: "Nemo dat quod non habet":  You cannot give what you do not have.

Here endeth the lesson

Image: "Peter Maurin." Wind and Fly LTD, 2018. 09 February 2018.