The Religious Roots of the Socialist Fantasy

Maybe it’s just the pandemic, but I have always felt afraid for my life when pushed to compete for intellectual attention with the field of economics. This suffocating sensation has less to do with my lifetime of innumeracy than with my deep hostility toward materialistic, and not merely quantitative, analysis. Materialism in thought is as frustrating to me as materialism in action. Economists and the bourgeois deserve each other: and pointing this out, even as a joke, suggests why. What is “the bourgeois,” anyway? An economic class, empirically verifiable, standing in a certain relation to materialism? Or is it a character in a made-up story? Fantasism has always served as what feels like a spiritual twin to materialism, a psychological subtext that throbs and pulses the harder materialism tries to mask it. But the fantasism that follows in materialism’s shadow isn’t a twin at all. It is a parent, not a sibling. Marxism is probably our best demonstration of how materialism is the means to the fantasist end of life as it should be, a life that can only be identified through the imagination. Which should we listen to more closely—socialism’s economic account of the bourgeois, or Marxism’s fantasist one?

Nathan Pinkoski’s rich and searching essay on the trajectories of socialist feeling in America is a welcome entry point to thinking through the relationship between fantasism and materialism on our shores. Pinkoski shows that socialism American style “deepens individualism and statism. It is not the rival but the patsy of state capitalism. It does not resist but serves managerial liberalism. American socialism is neither Marxian-inflected socialism nor Marxism, but it parodies their defects.” For me at least, the radical interpretation of this line of criticism is that, in America, the “bourgeois” does not really exist, not in a way that ought to put an intellectual obligation on us to attend carefully to.

Etymologically the word simply references dwellers in town, not the country—that is, a person who’s “free” in the sense of not being bound to a peasant’s life, work, and cares. Townspeople wound up amassing what peasants characteristically do not—extra money (capital, potentially) and extra time (leisure). As Pinkoski recounts, in socialist theory, this class, defined by its freedom to make and spend money, embraced and promoted “values” only insofar as they advanced their class activity. Even this narrow condition, we are encouraged to see, allowed for the universalization of those values. Already two concepts are doing a lot of work: the concept of the bourgeois as an economic class and the concept of universal values that advance its class activity. Why bother coming up with these concepts, already floating so free from material conditions? For reasons of economic science? But then a third concept comes along: only in the imaginations of the bourgeois, socialism charges under color of science, does bourgeois class activity actually square with the ostensibly universal values of the bourgeois. This false consciousness means (conveniently) that the bourgeois are spiritual criminals who can only find redemption in becoming socialists. “Marx’s contribution,” Pinkoski writes, “was to make these observations scientific.” To what end? Not to understand the world, of course, but to change it. Into what? Into a setting for the mass adoption of certain expert fantasies. At a certain point—early, I think, in this game of leveraging concepts—one has to wonder whether “the bourgeois” of the Marxist imagination exists at all, or whether it is from the outset part of the apparatus of make-believe that allows socialists to clear the stage for their project of putting the proper dreams into the right heads, with materialism no more than the conveyance mechanism.

Our difficulty is not one of “alienation” from our “labor” but of the virtual opposite, our inability to escape an all-too-intimate relationship with all-consuming material cares.

If you will grant me that, what, then, is really going on in America when people who Europeans would call bourgeois make a lot of noise about supporting whatever variety of socialism they have latched onto?

American Restlessness

Americans, as Tocqueville and his heirs have long noted well, are restless and anxiety-filled people always at a sort of war with themselves. In their all-too-short lives, they encounter a blizzard of petty cares that stand between them and the wholeness of repose. They are haunted by the fact that all too soon, death will close in and render all their dreams into futile vanity. As Tocqueville pointed out, this enervating yet agitating dynamic instils in Americans a gigantic appetite for direct and immediate experiences of breaking through and away from the iron latticework of material conditions constraining the ambit of our souls. Rather than playtime for the pampered, the life of the “townsperson” is as consumed and squandered by daily travails as that of the peasant, however softer or sweeter town life may be. Insistent against all material evidence that there must be more for us on Earth than this, we leap at the chance to transcend both petty troubles and petty comforts in a single spiritual moment. Our two main exits into instantaneous sensations fusing freedom and repose are, Tocqueville suggests, inward into the most bizarre cults and outward into the most popular religions. But what is the spiritual encounter? In both cases, Tocqueville’s analysis suggests, it is more an encounter with the solidarity of fantasy than the reality of God. Tocqueville says it is not at all surprising that wild cults attract American adherents. He also says one gets the feeling Christianity is so successful in America because it is popular, not because it is true.

What goes for the townsperson goes, in America, for everyone. Tocqueville underscores that the ever-deepening equality of “conditions”—the surrounding sociological hallmarks of life in our democratic age—means everyone, no matter their material condition, is consumed by the problem of the swarm of petty cares. Rich, poor, and middling alike are caught up in this swarm. None feel truly at peace, whether at rest or at play. Our experience of the material world is a spiritual problem that no materialist dispensation can resolve. Our difficulty is not one of “alienation” from our “labor” but of the virtual opposite, our inability to escape an all-too-intimate relationship with all-consuming material cares.

For this reason, rather than dreaming of a final material dispensation, we locate the desideratum of solidarity in a dream of a spiritual experience, a sense of togetherness. “Self-styled American socialists,” writes Pinkoski, “define socialism not by government control of the economy or by state ownership of the means of production, but rather in terms of an open-ended commitment to equality.” For Pinkoski, the means to this end are spiritualized by identity politics. An ever-expanding list of “isms” and “phobias” are blamed for denying “individual self-expression, individual self-determination, or most fundamentally, individual self-creation.” Logically, the terminal dispensation suggested by this spiritual value system is the equal emancipation of the imagination of all. Pinkoski concludes that this spiritual objective, pursued under color of American socialism, “grows out of the bourgeois” and “cannot escape its bourgeois origins”—even as it trends inexorably toward a kind of bourgeois communism. The “revolutionary character” of this “bo-Bolshevism,” Pinkoski contends, “is a consequence of understanding freedom as self-determination or self-creation.” Interestingly, he goes so far as to cast this posture as both libertine and Leninist in spirit.

Perhaps the sharpest critics of the identity-political ideology understand it as “bioleninism,” a revolutionary reorganization of the most degenerate and defective bodies into a lumpenproletarian vanguard. It is easy to see how both things could go on together; in both cases, the resources which must be redistributed are not material in the economic sense but resources of life-force inseparable from the spirit as a source of identity. Pinkoski claims nevertheless that “American socialists may be anti-liberal on economics” but “are ultra-liberal about everything else,” because the ultimate liberal dream is “the bourgeois worldview of freedom as individual self-creation.” But it isn’t clear that the modern townsperson’s economic position—rather than the position of their psyche or soul—made them embrace the ethic of the equal emancipation of the imagination of all.

The Electric Transformation

One possible answer is that technology caused the change. Before the advent of electricity, the formative psychological environment fostered by print technology did not present many opportunities for common persons to convert experience into economic value on an industrial scale. So as the democratic age set in, the fleeting moments of cathartic escape from the life-sapping circumstance of petty cares were characteristically squandered: not only were they difficult to monetize, but therefore a whole potential realm of economic life remained closed off. Forays into that uncharted territory were economically fruitless.

The rise of electricity swiftly changed that. Electricity, especially in America, threw open a tremendous path to break through and away from the suffocating constraints on the imagination imposed by material conditions. So too could we now break away from the materialist forms of psychologically processing those conditions which arose from them, such as writing and reading weighty learned tomes about economics. Electricity in America destroyed, or even preempted, the psychological or spiritual need for an expert interpretive class at the level of social theory and an expert managerial class at the level of social practice. To a degree we got these anyway: scientific materialism was still “out there” for you to “get into.” But this was a choice, not an official moral, ethical, or intellectual obligation.

Electricity made it possible for Americans to move an unprecedented bulk of economic cares into the realm of fantasy and spirit. In the mid-to-late 20th century, much of this shift left people of all economic classes anxiously aware that economic activities once more tightly linked to the bourgeois, such as “shopping therapy,” could not bear the spiritual weight it seemed the fantasy-industrial complex placed upon it. But in today’s even more de-industrialized age, it is clear that wealth and class are not what enable us to participate in the fantasy economy, and this is because that economy has moved so much more forcefully away from ownership and accumulation of material goods—and so much more into the realm of identity and spirit. The modern economic dominance of the bureaucracy of the “knowledge worker” gave way to the spiritual dominance of the bureaucracy of the fantasy worker.

Even our fine archive of premium fantasies is, ultimately, boring. In the greatest insult we can offer, it “hasn’t aged well.”

To an important degree this shift was foreshadowed at the very origin of communism. Behind Marx the secular materialist was Engels, the fantasist whose devout Protestant parents supported him financially so he could meme the masses into believing he was the most ethical expert in the history of the universe. When I hear Furet refer to communism as an “illusion,” this is what I think of, the fantasy and the caste of fantasists really behind all the extremely mind-numbing and life-wasting servitude to numbers and papers and materials which communist regimes always embrace with religious devotion. In reviewing Furet back in 1999, Mark Lilla connected The Passing of an Illusion to Eric Hobsbawm’s more commie-sympathetic Age of Extremes. What I think of here is the extreme dynamic between the rank fantasism and the stupefying materialism that together formed the communist dialectic.

Marx and Engels blame the bourgeois for the revolutionary spiritualization of all life—its abstraction into the “free trade” of energies assigned values. In his close association of the bourgeois with the ethic of the equal emancipation of all imaginations, Pinkoski echoes this charge. But he also leads us toward agreement that both communism and capitalism have proven apt at bending materialism to spiritual ends. It is hard not to proceed from there having formed a hunch that the ethic of the equal emancipation of all imaginations in fact long preexisted both electricity and the bourgeois and did not arise from any particular economic class or technology. I would suggest that the origin of this ethic is to be found in gnostic Christianity, across all three of its heretical Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox lineages.

Dystopias Realized

Given the flourishing of Christian heresies in America for the reasons Tocqueville intimates, it only makes sense that socialism in America has tickled people’s fancy as a spiritual practice more than a materialist ideal. This is hardly a lifestyle restricted to the upper middle class. Ritual expressions of creedal togetherness define much of the upper class memeplex and suffuse the education system training the lower classes. Sexual lifestyle culture is now both more bizarre and more banal than ever. Mainstream outlets from Slate to the Guardian casually flog “advice” columns on how to “navigate” the ins and outs of pansexual throuples and polycules. Endless posts promoting sexual socialism as a spiritual duty flood the internet, written and published by overeducated downwardly mobile middle-aged employees of large corporations and, increasingly, government agencies themselves.

There is now a national debate, reaching right up to a recent White House press conference, about whether Tiger King star Joe Exotic should be in jail, while Joe’s polygamous “gay” marriage to multiple nominally straight meth-addicted boy toys receives an only vaguely awkward pass. Goop’s promotional campaign featuring founder Gwyneth Paltrow striding through an enormous stylized vagina—a clapback against criticism of the company’s high-end jade egg marketed for genital use—is as proud a symbol as any that the de-privatization of sex has become an economically ecumenical status symbol of spiritual ethics for its priesthood of all believers.

The difficulty in today’s America is that the onboarding of so much economic energy into the utopian fields of fantasy work gummed up the system with surplus workers. Doctrines became increasingly recondite and organizations increasingly bureaucratic in an effort to filter talent and get a handle on efficiency. Young people and their parents assumed massive debt from public and private lenders in a mad scramble to escape the eye-wateringly rapid deindustrialization of the economy and secure a place in the magic kingdom. Stultifying and smothering petty materialism invaded the sunny uplands of make-believe. A largely self-selecting class of experts at crafting and disseminating fantasies filled the academic, media, entertainment, and governance elite. Using administrative and bureaucratic techniques familiar from materialist-socialist rule, they institutionalized a new fantasy-industrial complex.

Nothing Ages Well

Despite explosive growth, the path taken by the fantasy work elite was clearly a dead end even decades ago. The fantasy elite had already lost confidence in the people to live in accordance with their ethics. In fact they had already lost confidence in their own ability to impose minimum obedience—this is what the vast administrative complex they created was for. But even that technology seemed increasingly imperfect. The obvious solution was to make this the problem of our machines themselves. And in fact the internet seemed like a gift from the God of Institutionalized Fantasy, perfectly designed to make this happen.

That of course isn’t what happened. Digital technology has broken the spirit and the premise of the economy of fantasy. “Hit” movies and TV shows seem bigger than ever, but sink faster than ever, and converge inexorably toward sequels, remakes, and zombie IP geared toward audiences who don’t need to speak English—or any particular language—to make sense of the story. People think they see just the opposite in the flood of video game culture and social media culture. But the deeper truth is all of us know ever more—at an even faster clip thanks to coronavirus—that the fields of fantasy have been plowed barren. We have a vast archive of fantasies and dreams of higher quality than we can ever replicate. And even if we could, why would we? We too are reduced to mere scraps of content, like our once-charmed, now less-than-dime-a-dozen dreams. Even our fine archive of premium fantasies is, ultimately, boring. In the greatest insult we can offer, it “hasn’t aged well.”

This disenchantment, a sad evolution of Ecclesiastes, is unprecedented in American life: there’s still nothing new under the sun, but unlike in Scripture, and for the first time in our history, there’s also nothing truly generative in our industrious imagineering. Our epochal fantasist regime, once such a source of great power and meaning, is not just aging poorly, it is dying poorly, screeching and clawing for one more decade of false youth before the curtain falls. Today’s “socialist” turn reflects a desperate desire to stop the clock—and a wounded recognition that the hands will keep on spinning. The death of the fantasy economy arouses a bitter hope that mere materialism can save us after all—and a deep-seated understanding that it can’t.