In the Wake of Cultural Revolution
Interview With Author Marguerite Peeters
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By Jesús Colina
ROME, JUNE 18, 2008 (Zenit.org).- It might be time for society to move beyond values and head directly to Christ, says the director a think tank on globalization.
Peeters spoke Friday at the two-day Vatican conference on "Politics, a Demanding Form of Charity," which was organized by the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace. Her talk was titled "The Political Consequences of the Western Cultural Revolution."
In this interview with ZENIT, Peeters discusses postmodernity in the West and her analysis of the role of Christianity in inspiring a new movement of culture.
Q: At the seminar on politics and charity you spoke about the political consequences of the Western cultural revolution. What do you mean by that?
Peeters: There is a direct nexus between the cultural process which, over the centuries, has led the West to renegade and deconstruct the foundations of its own civilization, and the current democratic deficit, breakdown of the social contract, lack of trust in institutions, disconnect between governments and citizens, general malaise and sense of drifting -- the sense that the “demos,” the people, no longer rule, in other words, that we are no longer living in a democracy.
The 2002 doctrinal note of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith on “some questions regarding the participation of Catholics in political life” reminded us that “democracy must be based on the true and solid foundation of non-negotiable ethical principles, which are the underpinning of life in society,” and that democracy “succeeds only to the extent that it is based on a correct understanding of the human person.”
When it is not based on those solid foundations, democracy fails. Even if, formally speaking, the facade of democratic institutions is still standing, democracy is now resting on moving sands, and one is uncertain as to who really governs, and whether societies are in fact still governed and governable.
Q: How did we come to this point?
Peeters: The cultural revolution of the West started with the enlightenment, and dramatically accelerated in the course of the last century. When Nietzsche proclaimed the death of God in 1882, he was aware that nihilism would ensue: He promoted the “will to power” as a remedy to despair. But the utopia of his superman theory has now been revealed. The man who had killed God rushed to kill the father, the mother and the spouse.
The feminist revolution sought to liberate the woman from the “slavery of reproduction” (Margaret Sanger). The sexual revolution replaced the spouse with changing partners.
Freud turned the murder of the father, found in Oedipus’ myth, into a major theme of a Western culture already in the throes of apostasy. From then on, fatherhood was culturally associated with repression. Apostasy and anthropological deconstruction, which started with the rejection of the father, had dramatic political consequences.
Marcuse, the intellectual agent of May '68, who like Freud deemed civilization repressive, spoke of the advent of a non-repressive civilization in which our instinctual drives would become political values. When this eventually happened, when Western culture endorsed the free, unrestricted exercise of the libido, then institutions, the law, order and democracy lost both their authority and their legitimacy.
What is now left is horizontal brotherhood, but brothers without a common father are unable to govern themselves, and dysfunctional societies become anarchical and often prepare the ground for dictatorship: It is easy to grab power in a situation of general social and political disorder.
Q: Can the current situation be described as post-democratic?
Peeters: The Western cultural revolution today ushers into a no man's land called, for lack of a better word, postmodernity.
Postmodernity, as the word suggests, is what comes after modernity: after the nation-state, liberal democracy, democratic representation, consent of the governed, government, authority, hierarchy, clear-cut political identity -- left and right, Marxist and capitalist -- the contract of society and the contract of government, human rights, human dignity, “universal values,” institutional power, the primacy of reason, trust in science and so on.
All of these concepts, which we readily recognize, are deeply in crisis. The cultural revolution did not formally abolish modern institutions and values, but it fundamentally destabilized them and surreptitiously reinterpreted their core content, which has become radically ambivalent and can no longer be taken for granted.
In a postmodern system, the enemy is within. Ambivalence is not sustainable; the situation we are in is unhealthy. Let me also say that since postmodernity surfs on the powerful wave of globalization, the bitter fruits of the Western cultural revolution and its ensuing crisis of democracy have already reached the shores of the non-Western world and threaten to globalize both social deconstruction and loss of theological faith.
Q: Does postmodernity have a political platform, apart from deconstruction?
Peeters: The “freedom to choose” of the individual -- to choose even against the design of the creator -- has by now become the cornerstone of a new global ethic. Deconstruction paradoxically becomes systemic and globally normative. It goes without saying that such a perspective is asocial and incoherent, and contributes to further deconstructing the contract of society that binds people together.
The new political system would be a “flexible” process depending on people’s changing choices: It “celebrates” the “diversity” of our choices, whatever they are. The “right to choose” challenges even the need for people to be governed. The “do-it-yourself” mentality rapidly gains ground. But reality tells us that people and societies do need to be governed.
Q: Must we then go back to modernity and its values?
Peeters: Modern Western democracies rested on a system of “values,” eventually proclaimed “universal” in 1948. The historical fact is that modern values did not prove capable of containing the revolutionary process that eventually led to their destruction.
The reason is, in my analysis, that what appeared to be consonant with the social doctrine of the Church was in fact internally infested by the deism, naturalism, rationalism and individualism of the enlightenment. Insofar as “values” are an artificial and abstract construct, accentuating the divorce between faith and reason and faith and life, their breakdown is a providential opportunity for the new evangelization. It is a sign of the times.
Q: How so?
Peeters: People are tired of abstraction and grand theories. The time has come to disentangle the Christian reason from Masonic rationalism, our theological approach to nature from modern naturalism, our Trinitarian faith from the deism of the past.
The grace of our time may be that we are called to move beyond “values” to concrete, operational charity, to practical faith, hope and love, to the theological life, to God’s Trinitarian design.
The cultural and political challenge we are confronted is about the “death of God” and the death of man, about apostasy and the deconstruction of our Trinitarian anthropological structure. Modern “values” will not bring us back to God and to man. Christ himself will: "Duc in Altum" -- we are called to go out into the deep. It is to the Father that we must go back.
Q: Who holds political power under a postmodern regime?
Peeters: At the end of the Cold War, Western governments lacked moral leadership and failed to provide the vision that was needed for the new era. There was a vacuum. A political revolution then took place.
Those who had a vision -- that is, the May '68 generation then at the rudder of global governance, motivated by minority interests -- filled the void. The universal aspirations of humanity were hijacked, and the residues of the Western cultural revolution became global norms.
Power was transferred to “non-state actors,” and “partnership” with nongovernmental organizations, experts, the “private sector,” minorities and lobbies became a political principle. The revolution has led us into unchartered territory that has granted minorities who “participate” political legitimacy by stealth.
The prevailing fuzziness as to who governs us is all the more dangerous than the deconstruction of conscience that has turned the majority of citizens into zombies that are easy to seduce or manipulate.
Q: What did the political revolution achieve?
Peeters: A series of dramatic shifts in the way policy and decisions are now made. Let me name just a few: from government to governance; from hierarchy to equal partnerships; from representation to participation; from majority vote to consensus-building; from institutional power to people-power; from authority to empowerment; from identity to diversity; from formal to informal; from majority power to the power of minorities; from hard to soft; from content to process; from intergovernmental to multistakeholder; from national sovereignty to global governance, and so on.
Each of the shifts has vast implications, which need to be carefully analyzed. The new paradigms do exercise a critical political influence and have been mainstreamed throughout culture everywhere: Even in the remotest African village we hear about good governance.
Do we now live under a regime of coexistence of two parallel political systems -- one legitimate and formal but moribund, and the other informal but effectively governing the world by stealth? The new concepts are very seducing and often appear close to the social doctrine of the Church, but they have been hijacked.
Q: Is everything black and white in the shifts you listed?
Peeters: To date, the relationship between the old and the new, the modern and the postmodern, hasn't been clarified. But it is clear that the advent of governance, according to its current dominant interpretation, has contributed to further weakening the authority of government; that partnerships have contributed to deconstruct legitimate hierarchies; that diversity as a process tends to destabilize the content of identity; that participation often replaces the notion of democratic representation; that decentralization, tied as it is in practice to the implementation of a global agenda shaped, not by local citizens and the people themselves, but by “global experts,” has hijacked subsidiarity.
Discernment is all the more needed as the consequences of the political revolution are major. A new and global secularist ethic seeks to eliminate reality, truth, the good, love from culture and to impose itself on all by stealth, taking advantage of the weak or moribund state of our democratic institutions.
This global ethic places itself above the Gospel and claims to replace it. The global ethic represents an unprecedented violation of the principle of subsidiarity.
Q: Do you discern any positive element in the cultural and political revolution?
Peeters: What would happen if the new culture were de-hijacked, if it were evangelized? Would it not usher into the civilization of love?
Surely, the Holy Spirit is at work in the postmodern culture. Its main paradigms -- consensus, choice, people-centeredness, participation, broad bottom-up involvement, equality, empowerment, enablement, inclusion, diversity, flexibility, dynamism, complexity, holism, access, partnership, decentralization -- are clearly closer to love and the heart than the paradigms of the age of reason.
Under modernity, rationalism subverted love: We thought we could build a global order with the sole power of our reason and of science.
Are Christians not called to serve humanity by inspiring a new movement giving charity the primacy it deserves and reintroducing in the new culture a common search for what is true, real and good?
In the current political context, which reveals the vanity of our projects of institutions and civilizations, Pope Benedict prophetically emphasizes the primacy of charity and invites us, as again recently in Brindisi, to “hope, not as a utopia, but as tenacious confidence in the power of the good.” He called it a hope that is not temporal, but theological, and “founded on the coming of Christ, that ultimately coincides with his person and his mystery of salvation.” The intrinsic authority of truth, the good, love, hope -- the light of the coming Christ, the “light that darkness could not overpower” (John 1, 5) -- shines, and the darkness of our times cannot overpower it.