Not Of The World: Benjamin’s Theses On The Philosophy Of History X
The themes which monastic discipline assigned to friars for meditation were designed to turn them away from the world and its affairs. The thoughts which we are developing here originate from similar considerations. At a moment when the politicians in whom the opponents of Fascism had placed their hopes are prostrate and confirm their defeat by betraying their own cause, these observations are intended to disentangle the political worldlings from the snares in which the traitors have entrapped them. Our consideration proceeds from the insight the the politicians’ stubborn faith in progress, their confidence in their “mass basis,” and, finally, their servile integration in an uncontrollable apparatus have been three aspects of the same thing. It seeks to convey an idea of the high price our accustomed thinking will have to pay for a conception of history that avoids any complicity with the thinking to which these politicians continue to adhere. – Walter Benjamin, “Theses On The Philosophy Of History”, in Illuminations, ed. by Hannah Arendt, trans. by Harry Zohn, p. 258
As the Warsaw Pact nations had their governments overthrown or voted out of office; as the West began to plan for a new order for the industrialized world in the absence of any substantial Soviet threat, former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, when addressing a group of critics of the fermenting policy that was dubbed “The New World Order” by American President George H W Bush – a combination of neo-liberal economic policy, demilitarization of former Warsaw Pact nations, and democratic forms without any infrastructure to support it – proclaimed “There is no alternative.” This became shortened to the acronym TINA, and became and continues to be the conventional wisdom of foreign policy elites when considering the expansion of NATO and the European Union, the creation and rise of a single European currency, and even our approach to Russian imperialism toward Ukraine. Regardless of the economic and social and political hardships, we continue to be told TINA.
When political “leaders” express the idea that there are no substantive policy alternatives to those they are currently pursuing, particularly in the face of criticisms that include substantive alternatives, they have not only lost their legitimacy. They have demonstrated what Benjamin describes above as the attitude of the “opponents” of Fascism in the 1930’s who in fact surrendered in many ways long before any wars were declared or any armies were mobilized. An adherence to “progress”; their self-confidence rooted in a false sense of their own popularity; and the fact that they are not leaders, but rather servants of forces that seek to use them for ends not in keeping with the best interests of the people they allegedly serve all demonstrate that the names and faces and political theories may have changed, but in fact the game itself has not. Understanding this, as Benjamin notes, takes a great deal of effort, separating ourselves from the world in much the way the friars would, by focusing and meditating on the great gift to come rather than the horrors and evil of this age. Only then, only when the spell of this time is broken, can we understand the “conception of history” which Benjamin himself is proposing.
In much the same way, Christians are famously reminded that we are “in the world, but not of the world”. Precisely because of the equivocal nature of the word “world” in the New Testament – on the one hand it is the focus of Divine Love and Care as expressed in the incarnation of Jesus and through his death on the cross and resurrection; on the other hand, the world is ruled by the Powers and Principalities, understood not only as the then-current political forces, but also spiritual realities rooted in the Ruler Of This Age, i.e., Lucifer – we Christians must always demonstrate our love for this world while never falling for the tricks and traps, the “snares” Benjamin calls them, of this world. We are “not of the world” precisely because we understand “There Is No Alternative” is a lie. It has always been a lie whenever it or its like has been uttered by those who, rooted in this world, serve it rather than the people. Unlike those to whom Benjamin is appealing, the Christian churches have long had a way of understanding life in this world, its destructive capabilities, and the weakness and evil of politicians in the face of forces far larger than themselves. While non-Christians struggle to disentangle themselves from the comfortable lies of this age, we struggle on, making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world, always with one eye on those who wish to see clearly, understand clearly, and act freely in the face of forces that would destroy all of us for their own sake.
There are always alternatives. This historical materialist and the faithful Christian can join together on this, at the very least: that together, seeing and understanding clearly we can refuse to recognize the legitimacy of the powers of this age and seek to build a fully human, communal future in which all are considered of worth, and in which alternatives are always considered.