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Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Bonhoeffer's problem

          Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a Lutheran theologian who was executed by Adolf Hitler in 1945. During the 1960s, Bonhoeffer’s book, Letters and Papers from Prison, became a best seller in American circles. I would formulate one of his ideas this way: what are we Christians going to do when our scientific world has solved all our problems? We have been praying to a “God of the gaps,” a God who steps in the fix things that we humans have not yet learned to fix. Once we get all the things fixed, what will be left for God to do?

          In the 1960s it really did seem as though the human race was on the verge of solving all its problems. At least it looked that way to us Harvard folks who were living in a very privileged environment. Once we saw the way a process was developing, we pushed the model out to the limits and assumed that reality would eventually follow the model. We knew that things can happen very fast. The automobile was invented about 1900, and now everybody in the world wants an automobile.

          That way of thinking fit very well with the structural-functionalist approach to sociology. Society is like a machine, and as we learn to make the machine work better and better, it will eventually function without problems.

          Another version of the theory uses “democracy” as the god-term. If a country will just adopt democracy, all its problems will be solved. We went into Iraq with this idea. Let the Iraqi people taste democracy and they will become a beacon on a hill, shining to all the Mideast, showing what wonderful things can happen when you adopt democratic institutions.

          We in the U.S., of course, see ourselves as the model for all the world to follow. It is therefore distressing to see our democratic institutions faltering. Democracy should lead to more participation in the political process by more and more people. What is happening is that our political process is being subverted more and more by money. Instead of democracy, we are moving toward oligarchy, the rule of the many by the few.

          Here is an example of what I mean. The Supreme Court decides in January, 2009 that we cannot restrict contributions to political campaigns by large corporate bodies. Although labor unions are among such corporate bodies, the corporations of the business world far outstrip unions in resources. The present Supreme Court is dominated by a majority put in place by Republican administrations. As I write, there is a concerted effort in Wisconsin and other states by Republican strategists to undercut further the slight power that labor unions still have, by removing the legal supports that made union influence possible. The country’s distribution of wealth becomes more and more unequal. The very rich get richer and richer, and the rest of the population has to work harder and harder just to stay even.

          The 2008 election of Barack Obama broke the pattern of wealthy influence on political campaigns, but is that break only temporary? By now the wealthy have learned from the Obama campaign’s use of the social media, and are well on the way to corralling the use of those media in the interests of the usual oligarchs.

          The ultimate danger (the scientist projects trends into the future) is that the managers will become so skilled at manipulating the political process that it will become impossible to challenge them. More and more money will buy more and more votes, which will result in legal institutions to protect the rich from encroachment.

          What makes this possible is the lack of attention to politics by large sections of the population. Their lack of interest makes the system vulnerable to the influences that money can buy in favor of candidates (TV advertising, expensive campaign literature and signage, creative use of social media). 2008 showed that when enough people pay attention, real political change can occur. 2010 showed how hard it is to sustain the interest of the people who made 2008 possible.

          This does not describe the operation of the perfect democracy.

          The 2008 banking crisis was caused by wealthy speculators playing dice with the economy. The crisis caused unemployment. When unemployment is high, incumbents lose, so the Democrats lost ground in 2010. The defeat of Democrats favors the wealthy, which means that the rich end up coming out on top after the disaster that they caused. The Republicans, who systematically dismantled the regulations that might have prevented the crisis, get voted into power, and can continue to skew the legislative process in favor of the rich.

          My conclusion is one that every politician has known all along: politics is a game. Winning one game does not guarantee winning future games. Winning coaches and teams have to keep inventing new plays and strategies. There is no way to solve problems for all time.

          Conclusion: Bonhoeffer was misled by a structural-functionalist set of assumptions. Those assumptions go all the way back to the Enlightenment, with its stress on “reason” as the guiding light for human living. As Marx noted, “reason” is a fiction. He argued that the ruling classes create the fiction in a way that preserves their advantages.

          The pessimistic scenario would say that the rich are able to lock down the process so successfully that it becomes impossible for anyone to break into it. The optimistic scenario would say that when enough people become dissatisfied enough to take part in the political process, the system will be revised.

          I have been doing reading in the Civil War and its aftermath. The aftermath does not give one confidence that the poor can overcome the advantages of the rich. After the Civil War, the very people who caused and lost the war, the southern planter class, were able to re-assert control over the lives of their former slaves. It took a hundred years before a civil rights revolution began to break that control, and the fifty years since then have shown how hard it is to overcome the effects of a bad political system. But things have changed, very slowly.

          All along it is a game. We all need to play it.