Wednesday, April 20, 2005

Dictatorship of relativism

The selection of the new pope yesterday was high drama, as riveting and almost as important as the conference of Fed chairmen to decide the fate of interest rates. Perhaps the Motion Picture Acadamy could learn a thing or two from the Vatican to spruce up its award show: replace the comedians and the insipid celebrity presenters with robed septagenarians muttering in Latin, for instance. And more plumes of significantly colored smoke.

The choice of Ratzinger (aka "the Grand Inquisitor") can be taken as a nose thumbed at the southern hemisphere where the church is still actually growing and a signal that the Church's concern with third-world poverty and the injustices of the global economy will wane in favor of a more rigorous application to doctrinal niceties and upholding theological intransigence. But one should realize, as many have pointed out, that Benedict XVI's conservatism is not akin to free-market "conservatism" or neo-conservatism or any of the other Bush-republican heresies. He is a conservative of the old, old school, which finds capitalist dynamism to be the very enemy of spirituality and the priestly authority. Hence statements like this one to the convocation of cardinals before the vote, which may have earned him the papacy: "We are moving toward a dictatorship of relativism, which does not recognize anything as for certain and which has as its highest goal one's own ego and one's own desires." This mirrors Marx's famous statement in the Communist Manifesto, that capitalism makes "all that is solid melt into air," and reiterates a long-held anti-consumerist belief that capitalism exalts the individual and his deisres only to trivialize them and exploit them. Capitalism's cult of the individual, its exploitation of egocentricity to wrench profit from disintegrating communities, is one of the more powerful engines driving it. Making one's ego and desires the highest goal is basically the materialist motto of the American dream.

It's hard to understand how something that "does not recognize anything as for certain" can at the same time constitute a "dictatorship" -- dictators take the authority of their power as the essential, ineffable fact (or the "transcendental signified" to put it in the context of one of Benedict's targets, postmodern philosophy). I guess the idea is that individuals assert their own impulses as gods since no received authorities can be regarded as tenable or authentic or legitimate. So it will be interesting to see if the new pope takes the fight to the wellspring of relativism, which is not really the philosophers who most people find incomprehensible and thus inconsequential, but the atomization inherent to capitalism itself.

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