Faith, biopower, and utopia
(another version of this article was originally published at Catholic World Report in September)
(Raoul Haussmann, Der Geist unserer Zeit, 1919)
The old town church of my hometown in Sweden is probably the most salient architectural feature of the surroundings visible from our apartment. Here, across the city’s central lake is where I was baptized, as were my father, and his father before him. The monumental neoclassical structure is perched atop the town’s highest point, a bulwark stretching towards the sky, quite close yet inaccessible. The lake separates us, and from where I stand it is obscured by a pine grove and a bit of underbrush, but you can always see the cross. Especially so during winter nights when the humid air has frozen suddenly, giving rise to a delicate ice dust that reflects all light upwards, engulfing the symbol of our salvation in a brilliant orange pillar that seemingly has no end.
(Image from Elisabeth Lidberg)
Outdated fortresses in an age of globalization
I am told that the city would originally have been founded some seven miles northeast and across the river, were it not for a ferry accident two hundred years ago that somehow persuaded the authorities to place the church where it now stands. I would hazard a guess that safety issues pertaining to the river crossing during construction played a part in their decision, and following in this tradition, the entire city that later grew around it was in a sense a safety measure all by itself.
In the early 1900s, Boden became the site of a vast number of fortifications designed to protect the south from an invasion by the Russian Empire. Construction began just before the First World War, and the project was brought about by something reminiscent of the Red Scare, while perhaps not entirely unfounded. Russia had successfully invaded by land about a hundred years prior, and now, with two very recent revolutions in the east and yet another one brewing, and a decidedly volatile domestic and international political situation, the future must have seemed more than usually unpredictable.
While not impenetrable, the site was a daunting defense measure. The system of fortresses could be effectively operated with only a few thousand troops, while the Germans during World War II calculated that around 120 000 men would be needed to neutralize Boden and secure the availability of Swedish iron ore passing through the northern Norwegian ports. The Germans apparently decided against this more direct course of action. All the same, when Norway had fallen in 1940, our government chose to allow Germany free passage during and after the occupation.
(image from Wikipedia)
Some people say that this key network of forts and strongholds saved Sweden from an actual invasion, but I remain skeptical. Now almost all of it has been left to rot. The entire bastion stands as an overgrown, crumbling monument in concrete and barbed wire for the increasingly obsolete forms of sovereignty and the violent securing of order that characterized industrial society before globalization. We don’t really have borders in the same sense anymore, and actual hot wars between militarily equal, independent nation states within the West itself is almost inconceivable. Supranational entities of various sorts now hold power, while nations do not.
We still have wars of aggression, of course, but they are rarely called that anymore. Today, when power occasionally must be exerted with lethal violence, it nominally regards groups of insurgents, criminals or terrorists, decried almost unanimously. Now we have a war against a virus. The contemporary political and social order is extraordinarily cohesive in this sense, whereas actual local autonomy is just about universally eroded.
As Foucault would have said, de facto sovereignty has become outdated as a technology of power.
Biopower and survival as ultimate end
Michel Foucault, the French historian and philosopher, is probably the most widely cited academic within the humanities. Being a complex and unorthodox thinker, loved as well as derided, he is often misunderstood, while indeed not always entirely coherent himself. One of his most plausible theories, however, relates to the progressive displacement of older forms of coercive violence and control by a seemingly softer and more benign, but no less intrusive form of governance which he called ”biopower”.
Biopower and biopolitics, in Foucault’s understanding, is not so much about discipline and the control of behavior to force certain outcomes in society – the direct regulation of ”bodies” and their actions. Instead, it integrates these technologies of power in a new and more invasive system intent to directly constitute and shape life itself, according to the precepts of the establishment and the dominant ideologies. So the new forms of governance not only control behavior as such, but also takes it upon themselves to decide what kinds of life are desirable or not, and whose life is worthy of sustaining.
Incidentally, a global abortion industry that disproportionately targets the poor is possibly the most succinct contemporary example of Foucauldian biopower, but the global health regime emerging in the wake of COVID is a promising contender.
I have often found Foucault’s analyses of how power is constituted and possibly abused to be insightful, but it was not until recently I realized how strongly this particular model indicts secularism. Biopower namely hinges upon the elimination of anything transcendent from view, and of the establishment of biological life as the overarching supreme value of society. Classical fascism is used as a primary example of the general outlook, in which the physical life of the people and its flourishing and self-realization is all that matters.
This is then arguably also reflected in how the modern West promotes bodily health, safety, and intrusive medicalization, where physical well-being and the prolongation of life are the predominant values. The secular worldview evidently constructs a kind of desacralized biological existence which sanitizes death and then removes it from view, because the very idea of death threatens physical flourishing as an ultimate value. Biopower thus both relates to secularization and utilitarian capitalist values. It maintains that life is but a machine, and that everything we do reduces to dominance or submission in the endless quest for material contentment.
Under secularism there is nothing but physical existence, and its perfection is the ultimate value. The problem, then, and the legacy issue at the root of all forms of atheism, is that bare biological life is in itself entirely meaningless. So when you promote this radical reduction of value to life itself, when bare existence is taken to be the supreme existential value, you in a way expel meaning, or at least the perception of meaning, from society. As the Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben noted, people now do not really believe in anything, except in this bare biological existence which must be preserved at all costs.
In this kind of culture, worries about safety, health and survival then trump all others, because life as such has become the highest value. Now nothing can be sublime, nothing can be truly beautiful or really significant, because nothing points beyond itself. So when there is a virus, we naturally close down the churches. Religion, like the arts, like literature, like human fellowship, is at best just a supportive institution, enabling a smoother operation of the utilitarian social machinery. Religion is reduced to a form of non-essential anaesthetic for the weak of mind and will.
In the biopolitical regime, there can be no martyrs. There can be no saints. Nothing is worth dying for except survival itself.
And herein lies secular society’s obvious, if rather blunt, response to its debilitating problem of meaning. We still fear death, more than anything. Even if this hollowed-out existence of anomie and consumerist carnival is incomprehensible, we absolutely do not want to die.
To secular moderns, death is already alien for people in general, since it for generations has been moved out of sight. And being the tangible negation of the highest societal values, while we have lost most of the traditional means of coping with it, especially from within religion, death is extremely otherized. We have in a sense abolished death, or are at least enticed towards expecting such an outcome by the utopian promises of technology and progress, but are due to this eschatology particularly threatened by its return, implicitly or explicitly.
And paradoxically, a strategic reintroduction of the specter of death as a looming threat, will therefore at least superficially address society’s fundamental lack of meaning, because it will supercharge and refocus our desires towards temporal existence and biological life, as well as the political powers which shape and sustain them. In a context where life is devoid of transcendent meaning, and death is both sanitized and hidden from view, the reintroduction of death in a sense eroticizes life and makes it acutely relevant again, which inevitably will expand and reinforce the goals of biopower, which governs our health and provides safety and reassurance.
The two cities and the two loves
With our hearts thus stoked with fear by the radical and incessant emphasis on death over the last year and a half, and having all of our lives been immersed in a ceaseless spectacle teaching us to love only ourselves and the world, it is really rather surprising that even some of us took to kneeling in crowds at parking lots outside locked church doors when the isolation began. Our love for God is indeed a bruised reed, and many little ones have been caused to stumble with perhaps only slight culpability. For how would they really know better when there is so much irreverence, sin and supplication before the world, even among us who have taken upon ourselves to lead and edify?
There are other invisible dangers apart from viruses. I come to think of the young families in Pripyat, outside of Chernobyl, who on that early April morning in 1986 supposedly took to a nearby bridge for a better view of the beautiful nuclear meltdown and the eerily glowing ionized air. Whether or not any of them died as the early rumors stated, they were nonetheless in grave danger, unaware of the risks entirely due to the fault of the authorities above them.
But conversely, nothing is also more dangerous to the nascent biopolitical regime than true religion. Nothing quite as radically threatens its very precepts. The slightest encounter with something immutably and unquestioningly beautiful will unbalance their whole edifice, and the faintest echo of the sacred will reveal our manufactured, ephemeral love of temporal things to be nothing more than a band-aid. A thin plaster covering the bottomless emptiness of a world whose hearts are turned inwards, stripped away at the first movement of doubt. As Skinny Puppy laments in the 2004 song “EmptE”:
After all is gone the story leaves me feeling empty
And all alone, it leaves me feeling empty
Breathe, we are all animals inside
Free, the spirit is alive to guide us
We’re all alone and really feeling empty
The Christian Faith isn’t mere biology that can be manipulated. It is a life that will not be controlled. One that will not be domesticated nor sanitized. You cannot own it. You cannot command it, not even properly grasp it with natural reason. There is nothing utilitarian about it, and it will not bend to our human intentions, serving our empty ends, for it is always He that acts in what is the wholly undeserved gift of faith. It is something essentially unspeakable that He does in response to our humility, to our petitions and our ethical life, that we can never possess as our property, nor take for granted.
So real religion, as our free response to the indomitable gift of faith and the truths of reason, must go. The contemporary tools of power are essentially dependent upon desacralization and the concealment of transcendence to actually enforce control, and therefore, society’s movement into the future utopias of biopower, towards a fourth industrial revolution of intrusive digital technology and Zuboff’s surveillance capitalism, is in a very real sense threatened by the slightest modicum of faith. Once again I find myself having to admit that the atheists had a point. To build your secular techno-industrial utopia, you either have to completely abolish religion, or recuperate it and refocus its priorities towards worldly ends. It must disappear or at least turn into something that can serve to re-enchant the temporal world, lest it will constantly undermine the whole structure.
But in acquiescing to all this, in bowing before the idols of progress and their medical and technological redemption, we risk not only losing one of the most significant weapons at our disposal against these new forms of incipient tyranny. We imperil something infinitely more important in that we jeopardize the salvation of souls.
Let me return to the metaphor of nuclear power, yet another byproduct of warfare and security. As an ex-Protestant, coming into the Catholic Church has been something like leaving a community of scientists on a small, isolated island. An island whose people recently discovered nuclear fission and which for perhaps a decade have been trying to harness its energy entirely on their own. Now, established in an industrial nation on the mainland, you are welcomed by modern tokamak engineers backed by more than a century of tradition. At first, you do not understand all of their calculations and equipment, but you quickly realize that all of it actually works. Their math and engineering checks out and makes good sense, even if you cannot initially understand everything. What’s more, it soon becomes clear that it is extremely dangerous to disregard their guidelines. Lethally so.
So for a former Protestant observing the Church in certain respects moving away from her millennia of received tradition into various forms of doctrinal confusion, seemingly inspired by an assent to the ways of the world and the practices of dissidents, the situation is equivalent to seeing this group of mainland nuclear engineers approvingly consider the clearly inferior methods of my isolated island in spite of their own exceptional heritage, and then actually discussing testing our protocols in their own reactors. Something which would of course be fantastically ill-considered.
And if we one early morning finally have a meltdown, and find multitudes of innocent people unaware of the risks involved basking in the resplendent glow of an open reactor, those of us responsible, and those who knew much but did not speak out—well, a millstone and the bottom of the sea might have been better for us.
The Church is a fortress boundlessly more vital than any conceivable stone bastion, because it safeguards that which is more important than even life and death. And every procedure and protocol that surround her operations ought to be presumed essential. You do not needlessly interfere with the precautions around something infinitely more precious than life itself, in which lies the only real hope of any salvation worth the name. This is the only security that counts.
If we only would believe this to be true, and act accordingly.
Scientism’s hollow promises
Instead, we happily put our trust in technology, in marketing, and in promises of endless material progress. My great-grandfather’s generation used to place barbed wire, modern artillery and concrete between ourselves and the enemies of our rulers so we could all perhaps feel a bit safer. Nowadays we anesthetize life to exorcise an impending and invisible death. We conjure safety with rituals around isolation, inoculations and face masks, always supplicating before the world and its scientific priesthood, thinking that one day, they will build us a utopia of our desires where we shall not want.
But the idea of safety in this world is a lie. In this marvelously unlikely life, there really are no guarantees. The central fact about our contingent existence is precisely that it is inherently dangerous. That the stakes are impossibly high, because we ourselves, fallible and broken, get to write part of the story. And the secret that everyone knows is that there can be no safety in freedom. That’s rather the beauty of it. Every real choice must be a sacrifice. Every true act of virtue must come at a price, and overcome the actual possibility of failure. There is no safety when you give yourself up to the mercy of another. You have to face the risk.
In the final analysis, faith, hope and love are the only certainties we get.
Yet does not His Sacred Heart in a sense place this same trust in us? Hoping against hope. Mystery of mysteries. God beyond being, the Holy of Holies, actually comes to each one of us as a beggar, surrendering to our fickle, evil hearts in perfect humility, only so that we shall be able to respond in kind. Mercy without end.
And verily, right there, across the lake, atop the hill, beckon the gates to the Kingdom. Obscured and inaccessible, yes, but ever entirely near. And if we just open the door, He will come in to us. In the words of G. K. Chesterton:
O young ones of a darker day
In art’s wan colours clad,
Whose very love and hate are grey–
Whose very sin is sad
Pass on: one agony long-drawn
Was merrier than your mirth
When hand-in-hand came death and dawn
And spring was on the earth
(”To them that mourn”, Collected Poems)