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The Neoliberal Age: The Decomposition of the Self

By Paul (H. Matthew Lee)

“In combating racism we do not make progress if we combat the people themselves. We have to combat the causes of racism. If a bandit comes to my house and I have a gun, I cannot shoot the shadow of the bandit; I have to shoot the bandit. Many people lose energy and effort, and make sacrifices combating shadows. We have to combat the material reality that produces the shadow.”
— Amilcar Cabral

What has often struck me about our current Anglican squalor is that most of our problems are not unique to us. Even the cult of genteel mediocrity which has infiltrated us and our “Mainline” Protestant neighbors, and indeed also vast swaths of the Roman Catholic landscape, is not a uniquely religious issue as much as it reflects mainstream Anglophone upper-middle class culture. While the overwhelming control these cultural influences have upon our Church reveals how hollow our Christian faith has become for it to be hijacked so thoroughly, it also shows that much of our problems might not have distinctive religious (dogmatic, liturgical, or pastoral) origins. Rather, the decadence we see in our churches often appears to be a religious manifestation of a broader cultural malaise.

So, while I am disturbed on a near-constant basis at the comprehensive state of crisis Anglophone Anglicanism finds itself in, I am nevertheless inclined to argue that we must identify the varying underlying economic, political, and cultural structures that corrode us to understand and address the distinctive contortions of the Anglophone Anglican consciousness.

For this purpose, I present here a simple “sociological” essay in two parts. The first half will be a brief examination of contemporary North American life, and the latter half will focus on our Anglican churches on this continent. While I will be primarily focused on sociological matters, I am writing as a layman to his church, and I will attempt to point at the pertinent theological implications of my observations occasionally.

I am someone who can be described as a “1.5 generation” immigrant, which means a life lived in the tension of being an outsider everywhere I might call home. The historical accidents that caused me to be formed in vastly different lands during my childhood, a life lived often in separation from family in foreign lands, have inculcated me against the pseudomorphosis that I have always found uncanny in second-generation expatriates. This is to say that I categorically reject the libertarian undercurrent that is presupposed by the entirety of the North American consciousness. I am persistently perplexed by the obsession with individualistic autonomy, the pervasive disdain for decorum and discipline, and the paranoid style of thought that is endemic to our continent’s psyche today. I offer this self-description to offer some context that might help the reader understand the shape of my concerns. I am not interested in imposing upon you the terms of the narcissistic cult of subjectivity and its demons of ressentiment that have gripped the continent, as if the fact that I am a “colored” person somehow imbues my words with some inherent, mythical legitimacy. I might be a Korean writing to a predominantly white audience, but what is important is not that I am Korean but that I am a baptized Christian writing to others with whom he shares the common yoke of Christ.

Neoliberalism is the ideological superstructure of late capitalism which orders the world as a universal market, and it is the prevailing ideological framework that constitutes the world we presently live in. In the neoliberal world, society is no longer seen as a polis, a civitas, or even an oikos (family in the broad sense). Rather, the neoliberal society is fundamentally a free market, and the individual in turn is conceptualized as both an atom of production, a consumer, and even a commodity. This neoliberal world has no real structure, and in fact actively works to destroy all robust forms of communal identity that assert moral and economic claims which contradict the calculus of the free market.

By destroying such collective structures our contemporary world is left with atomized but fluid individuals. These alienated individuals, bereft of any concrete heritage and history, fill in their gaping spiritual abyss by constructing their self-identities as their own personal commodities. This act of self-actualization, which in its most extreme form entails wholesale self-construction, is conducted through the free market like any other form of capitalist consumption.

The genius of late capitalism is the enshrining of consumer identity as the central marker of who and what we are as individuals, a program which is first prepared by fooling us into accepting, as self-evident, the fiction of the individual as tabula rasa. In the ideal neoliberal world identity is no longer that which describes our familial relations, language, ancestry, geography, sex, religion, trades, etc., but rather what we consume. Consumer identity, as a private atomized singularity, exercises supremacy over how we define ourselves today, and both the law and socio-political force will liberate us from whatever that prevents our pursuit of personal desires behind the veil of the private sphere, one of the few things which are still considered inviolably sacred in modern secularity.

It is by understanding the nature of the neoliberal program that we can make sense of the most distinctive and strange phenomena of contemporary Anglophone life: the dizzying mire of identity politics. If our personal identity in this world is overwhelmingly defined by what we consume, it is the inevitable (and for the neoliberal machine, desirable) outcome that vast swaths of modern individuals will invest incredible amounts of personal capital into cultural and ideological commodities. Having systematically stripped the traditional structures of human life of their social purchase and cultural legitimacy, neoliberalism entraps us by having the commodities we consume in fact consume us entirely.

But what makes our present situation distinctive is that the issue is no longer simply the problem of a materialistic culture, and we are now in an age gripped by a pervasive material pessimism due to economic and environmental catastrophe. In such an age, the most important products we consume, which define our identity, are not material objects but ideas. Political affiliations, ethical positions, religiosity, and even knowledge are now commodities we consume on the free market of ideas, stripped of systematic coherence. The effects of this neoliberal superstructure can be seen in nearly every aspect of our present life, especially in the idols it presents to us. The prevailing idols of our time are far more subtle and sophisticated than the superstitious personifications of natural forces that we saw in the ancient pagan pantheons, as the psychological immateriality of our new ideological pantheon are as fluid, changeable, transient, and promiscuous as the flow of money through the international market of late capitalism. And in the individualism that is taken as self-evident in the neoliberal age, there are no gods but our own egos.

I want to suggest that the contemporary politics of identity raging through North America was able to find such quick and overwhelming success over the past decade because our lives have been systematically dismantled for generations. We North Americans now live in a helplessly balkanized world where any conception of a unified society has long been surrendered in the pursuit of insular, aestheticized subcultures. The way modern alienation drives our obsession with self-construction is, of course, not unique to Anglophone North America. But what I find distinctive about our situation is how our mainstream cultural norm — white secularity — is a helplessly artificial construction, and one which I find to be distinctively North American. All identities are abstract constructions to some degree, but white secularity is distinctive in the gleeful way it deconstructs its own cultural heritages and processes them into commodities.

For all the talk about white privilege and the complex ways we “non-whites” have been pressured and forced to conform to white social norms, it is seldom noted how alienated the average white North American is from any objective historical heritage. Racialization is not a one-way road — the construction of “colored” identities always also entails the dialectical construction of that which is otherwise than “colored,” the “white race.” Now that they have all been so neatly incorporated into the ambiguities of “whiteness,” even the descendants of the Mediterranean and Eastern European émigré are increasingly unable to speak the language of their ancestors and, at best, passingly know and receive the heritage of their grandparents. The price of émigré assimilation into white secularity is the slow but inexorable decomposition of one’s heritage and the rooted sense of identity that comes from being grounded by received customs and the memories of one’s forebears.

The very scary rise of white identitarianism in recent years should not surprise us as it is, in part, a desperate attempt to cling to some connection to an ancestral past. But like all reactionary romanticism, white nationalists are plagued with ahistoricity and false traditions, and their aesthetic is as pitiful as their valorization of the brutish European pagans or the world-historical evils of Christian Europe is horrifying.

Stripped of spiritual continuity with venerable antiquity and marooned in the wasteland of urban sprawl, the white urbanite is the neoliberal subject par excellence, a profoundly tragic and pathetic figure. When traditions decompose the concept of identity ceases to be a description of our givenness and our critical engagement with it. Instead, identity morphs into ideological programs which one subscribes to in the market of ideas. In such an environment, ideological programs become the basis for the wholesale construction of personal identity, and these idealistic constructions are then posited as “scientific” truth after-the-fact, requiring no correlation with history or empirical observation. Abstractions are now accorded the status of the hyperreal, and material reality is to be reshaped according to our fantasies. We are now, under the secular veil of sacralized private whims, demiurges of our own little worlds.

Here, we need to examine a curious phenomenon. Polling data consistently show non-whites to be more opposed to identity politics and “political correctness” than whites, and white progressives, who are wealthier and more educated than the national averages, make up the lion’s share of “woke” progressives. Non-whites who dabble in identity politics tend to be either Black Americans (not Africans) or highly educated second and third generation immigrants, which is to say that the North American culture war primarily appears to be divided along class lines. The fact that support for “political correctness” is determined more by one’s educational status than any other factor needs to alert us to the significant fact that progressive identity politics is the ideology of the educated professional class and their imitators. It is popular among those who are most assimilated into the urban landscape of modern secularity, whose personal identity is formed and defined by its cultural decomposition. Identity politics, both in its progressive and reactionary forms, is a symptom of the commodification of all life and the ruthless dismantling of cultural form and moral content.

The resentful quasi-Manichaean dichotomization of “whites” and “people of color” (a truly, truly grotesque colonial concept) and the manically shifting constellation of sexual identities that contrasts itself against “cisheteronormativity” not only obscures the artificiality of all these identity constructions but also distracts us from recognizing how we all collectively suffer the same rootless, atomized alienation of late modernity, crushed by spiritual and economic anxiety. One cannot, for example, even begin to understand the resentful nostalgia of the American “Flyover States” without taking account of how their communities have been ground down by the overwhelming forces of economic decline, drug addiction, and high rates of suicide. These are the social conditions that allow our collective consciousness to be swallowed up by acrimonious and divisive identitarian movements that chop up the world into tribalistic ghettos and process everything according to reductive racial and sexual concepts. Now, buried under the perpetual histrionics of both reactionary and progressive victim complexes, we all race to our respective tribal corners with little interest in empirical facts, concrete economic policies, historical precedence, or the most basic elements of mutual civic obligation and neighborly charity.

It is important for us here to move past the fashionable demonization of “whites” and the self-laceration of the white liberals. On one hand, such demonization is a transparent attempt at scapegoating based on largely immutable characteristics, and curiously perpetuates the endless narcissism of white self-aggrandization. On the other hand, the destabilization of the continent’s white majority makes North America an increasingly dangerous place for all of us, regardless of our backgrounds. The grim cost of my white liberal colleagues’ failure to understand how the reductive and moralistic castigation of their conservative counterparts destabilizes our societies will not be borne by them. The ones who currently suffer and will continue to suffer the fallout of an increasingly resentful white majority are us non-whites. It often astonishes me how all these supposedly well-meaning and “enlightened” friends of mine can be so unconscious of the incredible racial and economic privilege they possess, which allows them to feel so comfortable and morally satisfied stoking partisan flames without any real thought given to long-term strategy and concrete repercussions. It is, truly, a classical class blindness.

So what does all this to do with us Anglicans? The crisis of white identity is particularly significant for us because the demographics of our churches show that Anglicanism in North America is, overwhelmingly, the church of the white elite. That is to say: the ceaseless turmoil of the Anglican churches in this continent are nearly identical to the pathologies of the white ruling class and their internal ideological struggle because they are one and the same. The question, then, is whether we Anglicans are going to honestly acknowledge this correlation, and whether my fellow minorities and I sojourning in this confused church will authentically contend with its troubles. Will we refrain from cynically tokenizing ourselves to grift white progressives trying to find moral expiation through diversity industries built in their own image? It is not only the integrity of the spiritually and morally compromised white majority who are being tested in the demented culture war raging through our continent, and it would behoove us to remember that we too will account for our opportunistic conceits in front of the mercy seat of God.

Part two of this essay will turn more directly to the ecclesiastical dimension of the problem.


Paul (H. Matthew Lee) is a doctoral candidate in religious studies at McMaster University.


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