By Andrew Jones
Andrew Willard Jones is the Director of Catholic Studies at Franciscan University of Steubenville. He is the author of Before Church and State: A Study of Social Order in the Sacramental Kingdom of St. Louis IX and a founding editor of the journal New Polity.
What Christians are currently witnessing is that the gods of burgeoning postmodernity are not, in the end, interested in sharing space with the Lord God. Even if Christians are willing to leave these gods alone, the gods themselves have no intention of leaving Christians alone. Pagans sooner or later realize that Christianity cannot really be just another cult, that the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob can never really be just another god in their pantheon. Pagans recognize— often, it seems, before Christians themselves—that true Christianity just can’t fit in.
We see this in the Digital Revolution. In the Digital Revolution man is building a virtual world, a world where he is the sole creator. In this world, things do not have natures through which they participate in the ideas of God but are rather, merely, the ideas of men. It is a perfectly nominalist world in which man holds the potentia absoluta: the absolute power of God.
In this virtual world, the logic of human sovereignty can be totalized because there is nothing pre-given, nothing resisting its closed “order” that descends from man. It can be a world, for example, of complete and seamless juridically-defined private property, where every interaction is transactional, where all “places” are under the unilateral control of fewer and fewer owners. It is a world in which every individual is nothing more than the “deal” he has made with the owners of the property on which he is allowed to move and act—renting from them his participation in the world they own. “Rights” vanish here because rights were always based on the predicament of human beings sharing a truth-bearing reality that was prior to them and their ideologies, a reality that they had to somehow negotiate together, and which no single person could quite completely dominate. Such difficulties evaporate in the virtual world. Here, the owners are exaggerated kings of the ancient variety, sons of gods. They create the world, order it, and, according to their own interests, manipulate the fate of those who inhabit it.
Steadily, the virtual world is becoming, to more and more people, more real; the virtual is becoming the measure of the real, the architecture within which people live. It is becoming the structure that forms and organizes the world that they experience.
Within the confines of the virtual, the helpless individual—who “owns” next to nothing—is facing alone the creators of the world’s very structure, those who manage what is true and false, just and unjust, right and wrong, good and evil, and who control its rewards and punishments. The builders of the virtual world need not violently conquer the physical, truth-bearing world of real relations. They need only shift social life into their domain—and allow reality to either assimilate into the structures of their control or simply fall out of view, simply be pushed outside the new world. Unlike the ideological totalitarians, they need not physically destroy rival centers of human solidarity—networks of friends, for example. They need only shift friendship onto their “platforms,” where it becomes an extension of their power rather than a mitigation of it. They need not attack the family directly, removing children from the care of their parents, as did the totalitarians; they need only let parental authority decay in disuse as both children and parents increasingly live in the world of the screen. And this is indeed the path that the postmodern order seems to be taking. It is the most formidable strategy for victory that the City of Man has yet devised. It is a strategy of making mankind anxious and uncomfortable in the real, natural world—the world of human-to-human and human-to-nature contact, where bottom-up power can emerge and be maintained—and of making us desire instead the stability, the seamless order, the safety, of the virtual world: the “peace” of slavery.
Here, then, the final eclipse of the modern political architecture is occurring. The days of the dominance of the nation state—of ultimate power being the direct, political ability to marshal the physical and human resources of large geographical areas—are passing. Increasingly, these physical things are read through and ordered by virtual things that transcend them and connect them in new power structures: structures that stand above the persisting, but now demoted, political and economic forms. The old forms are not simply annihilated. That is not how history works. Armies, factories, farms, churches, courts— all continue. They are just re-ordered as pieces of something new, as they have been time and again through history. The deconstruction of old social architectures is the simultaneous construction of new social architectures: the inhabitants of old cities slowly disassemble the structures of their past to gain materials with which to build the structures of their future. This is a subtle process that mostly goes unnoticed unless it finally explodes in violence.
It is quite clear that the various dimensions of social life are no longer under the umbrella of order provided by old-fashioned national “politics.” Indeed, who could be so foolish as to mistake our politicians for the ones actually “in charge” of our social, political, or economic world? The rulers of the virtual world cut across all these old lines; and their rule is potentially more complete, more seamless, and more profound than anything the twentieth-century totalitarians could manage with their propaganda, bureaucracies, and armies. It remains to be seen whether this postmodern transition can be accomplished without the type of blood-letting that has accompanied similar changes throughout history.
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In The Two Cities: A History of Christian Politics, Andrew Willard Jones rewrites the political history of the West with a new plot, a plot in which Christianity is true, in which human history is Church history. It advances a theory of Christian politics that is both an explanation of secular politics and a proposal for Christians seeking to navigate today’s most urgent political questions.