A Commodified Earth

As a young thinker and activist, circa 1844, Karl Marx saw in the industrial working class universal humanity and saw in industrial production the means through which humanity would fulfill its highest aspirations of prosperity and freedom. Over the course of the 1850s, Marx came to question “the standpoint of the industrial proletariat,” taking up instead the value form of the commodity as the vantage point of his critique. Yet, as far as I can tell, he never explicitly called into question industrial production as the principle means for achieving the efficiencies upon which, he believed, “freedom from labor” could eventually be realized.

This deficiency is odd. In mainstream neoclassical economic thinking, labor remains bound to the production process through its contribution to the marginal product. This is because the marginal product of labor is equal to the ratio Δ Q/ Δ L, where Q represents some quantity of anything (or no thing) and where L represents some quantity of labor. Productivity arises whenever the change in Q is greater than the change in L: whenever more is produced for less. On its face, this appears to show why, eventually, the contribution of labor must become negligible when compared to a volume of goods. Obviously, however, since we are considering a ratio and not a quantity, it is just as reasonable to suppose that the quantity increases exponentially while the contribution credited to labor holds constant or, perhaps, even increases. This would be the case whenever the marginal product is distributed to an ever smaller portion of the population: to individuals at the very top of the income hierarchy. When therefore economists show that western European social democracies perform less efficiently than Great Britain or the United States, they are simply pointing out that the marginal product is distributed far less equally in Great Britain and the United States; i.e., that investors are credited with far more of the marginal product than working families.

While agreeing broadly with this analysis, Marx showed why, on its face, it meant that working families might never enjoy the benefits arising from their increased productivity. In order for working families to benefit from increasing productivity, the value of workers’ labor would have to be completely separated from the marginal product: Δ L would have to be eliminated from the formula for marginal productivity; leaving, e.g., ΔQ/ΔT, where T represents time and/or technology, but not actual labor. Did this hold true, then the goal of industrial production would no longer be coordinated with labor time. But, in that case, labor time expended would no longer mediate social relations.

Assuming that ΔQ was no longer correlated to labor, we might then wonder how investors would earn ever higher returns. Put bluntly, if the increase in goods were not relative to a change in labor, with what would consumers purchase the marginal product? Or, more generally, how would we value their contribution to the marginal product — and thereby compensate them — were their contribution no longer a factor in its production? In other words, what would mediate social relations under conditions where labor was factored out of the marginal product?

These questions strike at the heart of catastrophic climate change for the following reasons. While consumers purchase, trade, and consume what Marx called a commodity’s “surface form of appearance,” surface forms of appearance are valued differentially in terms of their contribution to the aggregate, i.e., gross, domestic product. We could say that consumer demand is the engine of production; i.e., that production, innovation, and investment are no more than responses to consumer demand. Or, in the alternative, we could say that for investors to realize ever increasing returns on their investments, they must generate ever increasing consumer demand for products produced ever more efficiently.

This might appear to be a “chicken-and-egg” argument: which is the driver and which the destination? Do we produce in order to consume? Do we produce in order to realize returns?

But the answer is clear. Were we able to produce without counting ΔL, the system would collapse. It would collapse because either L would acquire the means of consumption apart from its contribution to goods; or it would collapse because absent the ever increasing marginal returns they win from the marginal efficiency of labor, investors would no longer invest. But, in either case, it is the marginal profit investors win from labor that accounts for economic growth.

From this vantage point, the Earth in all its complexity can be seen as the surface form of appearance of a comprehensively integrated and commodified ecosystem and its subsystems. The Earth exists in order to win returns for investors. Or, in Marx’s terms, the Earth’s “surface forms of appearance” are mediated by abstract value.

This also means, however, that the Earth’s surface forms of appearance could be understood as a “fetish,” a social form whose “natural” powers and meanings are masked and overridden by the social power granted to the abstract value form of the commodity. Their fetishized form means that we cannot even recognize in these surface forms of appearance what they could possibly even be for — what their meanings might be — apart from their contribution to the marginal product. So that, even when we attempt to “balance” the Earth’s “non-economic value” against its “economic value” we cannot do so without reverting to marginal analysis.

The virus that has infected the Earth — that has hacked into and overridden its codes — is the commodity form and, in particular, the abstract value of this form. To restore the original code would require that we eliminate the ΔL from our model.

To this extent, Marx’s critique of the capitalist social form offers us a valuable insight into the reason why addressing merely surface forms of appearance — insurance schemes, tax schemes, regulatory schemes — without addressing the underlying model of economic expansion may not prove sufficient to prevent the impending climate change catastrophe.

Graeber’s Economics

I have every reason to be sympathetic with David Graeber’s review, “Against Economics” (NYRB 12/5/2019). After teaching the history of economic thought in the top-ranked UC Berkeley Economics Department for six years, I fell victim to two of my departments leading monetarists, Marty Olney and Christy Romer, who personally took it upon themselves to oust me, ostensibly because I am not “an economist”; which, of course, they had known for six years. I should have been sympathetic with Graeber’s review. I was not. Here’s why.

At the most general level, money is a socially and historically specific social form. Therefore, while I have no problem with someone writing a transhistorical history of, say, debt, I do have serious problems with writing this history as though he was always talking about the same thing; which, anthropologically speaking, would be absurd. Money comes to be what it is in contemporary capitalist political economies beginning in roughly the fourteenth century. But it is not really until the seventeenth century that it “comes into its own” so to speak. What does this mean?

With the mature Karl Marx of Capital, I assume that prior to the emergence of capitalism social action was mediated by a wide variety of social forms. (Obviously, the young Marx of, say, the 1844 Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts or the Communist Manifesto was still too taken by Hegel’s concept of “species being,” and, to this extent, was himself a victim of transhistorical human ontology.) Or, as French medieval historian Geoff Le Goff noted over a half-century ago, capitalism was born when the value of productive human action was measured in the equal units of time marched out on mechanical time pieces; which was in the parish of St John, Ghent, in 1324. This does not mean that money, labor, and time suddenly snapped into place. As EP Thompson has noted, social actors fiercely resisted the new regime of time and labor. Yet, enough of the new regime was in place by the seventeenth century for natural philosophers to appreciate some of the new patterns it was generating across society, where it was beginning even to penetrate the otherwise stable landed estate.

By the time we reach Locke and Hume, we are therefore already a good ways into the journey. But the issue is not, as Karl Polanyi believed it to be, whether the landed estate of gentry and peasantry should be deemed “natural” and — I don’t know — “non-fictional” (!?) when compared to the artificial and fictitious arrangements of the late seventeenth century. On the mature Marx’s assumptions, all social formations are — well — social; i.e., none is natural. The issue is: how are we to account for the “anomalies” that have begun to proliferate across the Western European social landscape; anomalies of which William Blake or Bernard Mandeville’s Grumbling Hive can only give us a taste. Natural philosophers were reaching for straws; but it is interesting the straws they selected.

If, as Marx argues, time is the category upon which capitalism turns, then the laser focus on material forms of appearance, no matter the commodity, will never give rise to a satisfying analysis. Late seventeenth and early eighteenth century critiques of mercantilism were, to this extent, spot on. If the central category is time — or, more precisely, MPL = Δ Q / Δ L, the change in some quantity of any thing, or no thing, over the change in the amount of labor (or capital) that corresponds to that change in quantity — then fixation upon surface forms of appearance, be they even the surface form of specie, missed the point entirely. So long as equal, abstract units of time dominate the social landscape, it does not even matter whether a good is or is not itself a product of labor: Karl Polanyi’s error.

And, yet, it was not until the 1860s that the capitalist social formation was sufficiently integrated and extensive for economic thinkers to “see” the “substance” that all commodities shared: abstract value.

It hardly matters who hit upon the insight first; was it William Stanley Jevons in 1858? Jevons thinks so. Was it Karl Marx in his Grundriße? Was it Leon Walras? Clearly by the 1860s all economic thinkers, including Marx, recognized the comprehensive, integrated, quasi-rational character of the capitalist social formation. Once recognized, it no longer made sense to qualitatively differentiate among the many expressions of value — interest, rent, wages, investment, land, stocks, insurance, etc. All expressions had come to be differentially related to one another in such a manner that each could be measured in terms of the others; the money commodity not excluded.

(By the way, anyone wishing to tackle John Maynard Keynes’ General Theory might just as well read his professor, Alfred Marshall’s, Principles of Economics (1890), since Lord Keynes really says nothing that Marshall had not already said.)

Graeber is surely correct to deny money the independent status granted to it by pundits for the Washington consensus. Money is no less, but also no more, flexible than any other commodity. But he is incorrect to think about the flexibility of money apart from the capitalist social formation, as though the value or quantity or distribution of money were merely a matter of policy. Because the capitalist social formation — which includes its laws and regulations and institutions — is thoroughly integrated; because policy enjoys “value” in precisely the same sense as a race or immigration status or stock or gender enjoys “value” (i.e., in its relations to all other commodities, individually and in aggregate); any change in “the universal equivalent” sends waves throughout the social formation. In this sense, I would go further than Graeber. Neoclassical economists are not too mathematically rigorous, but insufficiently rigorous. In a thoroughly integrated capitalist society, all things, including things that are not things, have value. (See, e.g., opensecrets.org). These values are differentially related to one another, such that, for example, investors in the Central Valley of California know that fruit pickers earning .25/hr. make manual harvesting more efficient than automation (where automation costs roughly $500K/year); they know that both a porous southern border and laws restricting immigration maintain wages at .25/hr.; and therefore they know the value of campaign contributions that promise to stigmatize brown complexioned, Spanish-speaking, migrant laborers. Since the value of California’s ag product is roughly $60B, this is not a negligible figure.

Stated differentially, a blight on California’s Central Valley could be expected to give rise to shifts in a whole range of complimentary and substitute goods and, caeteris paribus, give rise to shifts in investors’ asset preferences accordingly.

Which is not the same thing as “fairy dust.” In fact, it strikes me that it is the opposite of “fairy dust.”

There is a totally bizarre chapter in economic history that illustrates precisely this point. Many Marxian social theorists are familiar with Oskar Lange, whose On the Economic Theory of Socialism became the “bible” of economic policy for much of the Comintern from 1948 forward. Many are also familiar with Friedrich von Hayek, the Austrian School author of (among other atrocities) the Road to Serfdom. Few know that von Hayek was Lange’s dissertation advisor at LSE and that the dissertation he advised was “On the Economic Theory of Socialism.” In his Socialism, Lange proposed an objectivist approach to monetary theory. Under capitalism, Lange claimed, the value of money was relative to market fluctuations, which the decisions of the central monetary authority would then attempt to take into account. Under socialism, market fluctuations would disappear, leaving the central planning committee free to establish any relationship they liked between the monetary unit and the goods to which that unit applied.

Von Hayek, too, was a monetary objectivist. In a series of editorials written to the London Times in 1938, he and other LSE economists debated with Lord Keynes and his Oxbridge colleagues over the merits of relativist and objectivist monetary policy. The relativists held that it really didn’t matter where you picked up this hydra, since all of its heads were the same beast. Expand the monetary supply, loosen interest rates, raise wages — it did not matter. Not so the objectivists. Goods had real, objective, values, which Keynes and his colleagues were treating as mere toys. Objectivism lost in Western Europe. It won in Eastern Europe, Russia, and among the Comintern partners, with, I would argue, disastrous results.

The disaster followed from the thoroughly integrated character of the fully elaborated capitalist social formation — even in its Soviet form — on account of what I would call the imperfect correspondence between any commodity’s value and its material form of appearance. In his notes, Marx captured this imperfect relationship as follows:

Circulation bursts through all the temporal, spatial and personal barriers imposed by the direct exchange of products, and it does this by splitting up the direct identity present in this case between the exchange of one’s own product and the acquisition of someone else’s into the two antithetical segments of sale and purchase (Capital, vol. 1, p. 209).

This is where Lange and his Comintern friends believed they could intervene: at the point of sale and purchase.

To say that these mutually independent and antithetical processes form an internal unity is to say also that their internal unity moves forward through external antitheses. These two processes lack internal independence because they complement each other. Hence, if the assertion of their external independence [äusserliche Verselbständigung] proceeds to a certain critical point, their unity violently makes itself felt by producing — a crisis (Ibid.).

Here Marx took the argument from Hegel’s Logic and reembedded it back into the social formation, capitalism, in which it enjoys social validity.

There is an antithesis, immanent in the commodity, between use-value and value, between private labour which must simultaneously manifest itself as directly social labour, and a particular concrete kind of labour which simultaneously counts as merely abstract universal labour, between the conversion of things into persons and the conversion of persons into things; the antithetical phases of the metamorphosis of the commodity are the developed forms of motion of this immanent contradiction (Ibid.).

To be clear, much like other neoclassical economic thinkers in the 1860s and 1870s, Marx theorized that the capitalist social formation formed a comprehensive, integrated totality. And, like them, Marx drew a distinction between abstract value and its material forms of appearance. But, unlike his contemporaries, Marx took the immanent contradiction between any commodity’s value and its material forms of appearance as an historical and social anomaly, whereas they took it to be a feature of general, universal social ontology.

In the case of the money commodity, it is therefore not the case — at least not on Marxian grounds — that the value of the money form is arbitrary. (Oddly, this was both von Hayek’s and Lange’s position. But they differed over the arbiter whose arbitrium would arbitrate — market or council — over the monetary unit’s value.) When we shift the quantity or the value of the monetary unit, we also simultaneously change the values of all other commodities. As Marx noted, this is not a flaw, but a feature.

The possibility, therefore, of a quantitative incongruity between price and magnitude of value, i.e. the possibility that the price may diverge from the magnitude of value, is inherent in the price-form itself. This is not a defect, but, on the contrary, it makes this form the adequate one for a mode of production whose laws can only assert themselves as blindly operating averages between constant irregularities (Capital, vol. 1, p. 196.).

Graeber, by contrast, notes the apparently (but only apparently) arbitrary relationship between value and its material forms of appearance, but fails to grasp the internal, social identity between the two; which, for Marx, was the ground not only for crisis, but also for social transformation.

These forms therefore imply the possibility of crises, though no more than the possibility. For the development of this possibility into a reality a whole series of conditions is required, which do not yet even exist from the standpoint of the simple circulation of commodities (Capital, vol. 1, p. 207).

Upon this reading the crises to which Graeber calls attention could instead be taken as instances where value and its material forms of appearance displayed their social dependence upon one another, but also displayed the wheel around which their dependence turned: the universal valuation of productive social action in terms of abstract time and abstract value.

From this vantage-point, absent radical changes in social mediation — reflected, for example, in the distribution of the social product, the independence of the social product from labor time, the independence of health, education, and welfare from abstract labor time — a change in monetary policy cannot give rise to the kind of emancipatory social change we have reason to value.

It is not, as Skidelsky claims, that economists are drawing upon “a shed full of broken tools.” As Marx noted:

The categories of bourgeois economics . . . are forms of thought which are socially valid, and therefore objective, for the relations of production belonging to this historically determined mode of social production, i.e. commodity production (Capital, vol. 1, p. 169).

The tools work exceedingly well so long as they are used. My objection to my colleagues at Berkeley and Harvard is not that neoclassical economic theory is obsolete, but that its practitioners are. Lord Keynes was sufficiently circumspect to recognize the historically and socially embedded (and therefore constrained) character of the tools he was using. But he also used them in a manner that, say, Alfred Marshall and, certainly, Arthur Cecil Pigou, had not. That is, he recognized the social character of value; which, in the end, made him a far better, more rigorous, mathematical economist. My colleagues at Berkeley, by contrast, keep their noses to the ground, noting every detail, but without ever lifting their heads to view the worlds in which these details fall. To use Skidelsky’s tool shed metaphor, they keep tightening and loosening the screw on the plane (raising and lowering interest rates, increasing and decreasing the volume of the currency), and are confounded when their actions fail to produce a useable piece of furniture.

So, yes, economists need to reflect critically on “how to deal with increasing technological productivity, decreasing real demand for labor, and the effective management of care, without also destroying the Earth.” And when they do so, they will use the tools of “bourgeois economics”; though I hope they will do so with better awareness of the socially and historically specific nature of the capitalist social form.


I awoke this morning listening to BBC and Radio Deutsche Welle commentary on the fortieth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Angela Merkel and Wolfgang Schaeuble place roses into a portion of the wall at Bernauer Strasse on Nov. 9. 
Angela Merkel and Wolfgang Schaeuble place roses into a portion of the wall at Bernauer Strasse on Nov. 9.  Photographer: Krisztian Bocsi/Bloomberg

The accounts left me despairing over our current world.

The wall fell after I was already accepted into graduate school, but a year before I took up residency in modern European history. Even at the time, New German Critique and Telos (my go-to journals back then) were describing a “new class” of entrepreneurs fanning out across Eastern Europe and Russia, privatizing public entities and occupying the skeletons of remaining public ones. Their authors had little hope that Eastern Europe would follow the examples of Sweden or Norway or the Netherlands. No, this “new class” would strike a more sinister pose: the pose pounded into them by half a century of free market, anti-communist propaganda. They genuinely believed, as President Reagan genuinely believed, that “government is not the solution to the problem; government is the problem.” Markets work best when publics are reduced to a cipher. And so the “new class” set to work dismantling the very institutions that might have arrested, tried, and convicted them for seizing the wealth their citizens so desperately needed and deserved. Absent functioning public institutions, they got off Scot-Free.

Capitalism is grounded on MPL = ΔQ/ΔL, where the marginal product of labor (or capital) is held to be equal to the change in a quantity (of anything, or no thing) over the change in the labor (or capital) required to generate that change. It was this product that proved exceedingly problematic for soviet planners. How do we get more with less?

Some goods should never be subject to marginal analysis: health, education, and welfare, for example. If not constitutionally memorialized (as rights), these goods quickly succumb to the bottom line. What is the value of health? If subject to marginal analysis, the value of health is its value relative to all other value generating goods. In a free market, the value of health is whatever consumers of this good will pay and whatever producers of this good can charge. What is the value of education? Again, if subject to marginal analysis, the value of education is its value relative to all other value generating goods. The same holds true for welfare, which actually is memorialized in the US Constitution; or, in any case, in its Preamble.

Nor do we escape marginal analysis when we account for the marginal benefit society derives from good health, education, and welfare. At some point well short of perfect health, superior education, and sound public welfare, the costs exceed the benefits. One could argue of course that cost should not be the gate-keeper for an education good, or for health, or for welfare; one could argue that their is a category mis-match when health, which is measured in other ways, comes to be measured by cost, or when a citizen’s grasp of what citizenship even is depends upon whether they are sufficiently wealthy. In a world that universally valued superior education, the value of education in monetary terms would drop precipitously; just as in a world where pure water and air were universally available, their cost would drop to zero. But, in a world, such as our own, where health, education, and welfare are subject to marginal analysis, their benefits will be distributed differentially based on the wealth of the individuals who desire them.

Soviet planners wanted to deliver the goods, and they wanted to bypass MPL=ΔQ/ΔL. But they couldn’t. The goods require labor. There is simply no way around it. But that means that people must work, in order to generate the marginal product. Why will they work? In traditional societies, people work because they need to eat. Anyone familiar with farming knows that sustainable farming does not actually take much time. What takes time is farming enough to purchase the equipment, the seed, the materials, and finding the markets willing to pay sufficiently for your goods to pay for the equipment, seed, etc. Traditional societies don’t have this problem because they are producing solely for themselves (and for their lord). But, the soviet planners rejected serfdom and they rejected free markets.

So, the question is: how do you produce any good efficiently? The answer is MPL=ΔQ/ΔL. And this is the definition of capitalism.

Soviet planners could not not be capitalists. They thought their problem was a political one. Achieve power, eliminate the bourgeoisie, and enforce socialist laws and regulations. But their problem was actually a social problem. They needed to find out why, if not for MPL, social actors might want and work for the things we haver reason to value: such as, health, education, and welfare. They never figured this out.

But, evidently, we have not figured it out either. Why, if not for the marginal product, would we want superior education, good health, and secure welfare?

When the wall fell, Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union did not become better. They did not even become better capitalists. They became oligarchs, plutocrats, and tyrants — because they believed in the propaganda dished out to them by defenders of free market capitalism who still have no idea why we might value health, education, and welfare apart from their marginal product.

The Best Things in Life . . .

The best things in life are free, But you can keep them for the birds and bees. Now give me money. The Beatles.

Yesterday once again the bumper sticker caught my eye: “The best things in life aren’t things.” Yesterday, however, for the first time it struck me as terribly reactionary.

There is, of course, a trivial interpretation of the aphorism: when we fixate on surface forms of appearance, we overlook their underlying significance. So true. But it strikes me that in a world where social actors and voters are increasingly inclined to ignore facts, or, rather, to view facts as mere subject-effects — products of ideology, culture, or community identity — it is precisely things that might save us.

Think about it for a moment. What so deeply disturbs industrial polluters about Bill McKibben’s “ppm” (parts per million) is that it is a hard, solid, measurable figure. According to McKibben, scientists know what happens when there are more than 350 ppm CO2 in the atmosphere. Industrial polluters, by contrast, want us to think about CO2 “marginally.” When we think about CO2 marginally, we “weight” a wide variety of variables (e.g., employment, wages, marginal costs, marginal profits, etc.) and determine the optimum level of CO2 relative to these other variables. Marginal analysis will result in a figure far in excess of 350 ppm. But, it will be said, “we cannot simply pass a law restricting carbon emissions to 350 ppm and expect polluters to comply. Were they to comply, en masse, it is argued, the consequences would be catastrophic.” Think Brexit on a global scale.

The point is that, although we may lie or may simply be ignorant about things, things themselves do not lie. Things tell the truth. But, under capitalism, things are fetishized along highly specific lines. Under capitalism, we experience things in terms of their abstract value, which connects all things to one another, and their empirical surface forms of appearance.

I have just reread a brilliant article by my dissertation advisor Moishe Postone, “Anti-Semitism and National Socialism: Notes on the German Reaction to “Holocaust” (in A. Rabinbach and J. Zipes (eds.), Germans and Jews Since the Holocaust, New York: Holmes and Meier, 1986). Postone points out how anti-Semites are inclined to interpret Jewish social being through the components that make up the commodity: its surface form of appearance and its abstract value form. Antisemites fetishize the outward form of appearance; they find meaning along these surfaces that are socially valid, but whose meaning is in fact socially generalized. So, for example, every commodity is connected to every other commodity through the abstract value that mediates their social existence. The abstract value form creates a web or network of value that is co-extensive with the capitalist social form. During economic booms, social actors are scarcely aware of this abstract form of social mediation. During depressions, however, social actors feel as though they are being controlled by occult forces beyond their control. Antisemites fetishize Jews and the cultural “spirit” of Jews as expressions of the abstract value form of the commodity. On the other hand, they fetishize European “nordic” bodies as rooted, natural, and grounded.

The best things in life are not things. In antisemitism, neither the fetishized Jewish body, nor the fetishized Aryan body, are things only. They are material forms of appearance invested with underlying social meanings. The meanings of Jews and non-Jews transcend the bodies of both. A careful examination of the history of antisemitism in Afro Eurasia, and specially modern Afro Eurasia, reveals a social form eager to find meaning and significance beyond surface forms of appearance.

Antisemitism perfectly embodies the aphorism: the best things in life are not things. But also the worst things. Perhaps it is time we paid more attention to things.

What Top CEOs Don’t Understand

Since they have not studied anything remotely similar to economic history, it is understandable that top CEOs don’t get it. I get it. But Vanderbilt economist Margaret Blair should know better. 

According to Professor Blair, capitalists in the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s reflected an interest in the public. “It was around ’88 or ’89 that their tone changed and they started advocating shareholder primacy.” Really?

Yes, in the shadow of the worst global economic downturn in history, with fascism and nationalism breathing down their necks, elected officials radically overhauled the regulatory frameworks that governed private corporations. But do not think for a moment that capitalists woke up one day in the 1930s and decided that the bottom line was no longer the bottom line. That never happened.

What did happen was that the United States spent some $14.63T defeating fascism and nationalism. Thanks to union activism, big government and big government contracts lifted working families up from the bottom. When, in the early 1970s, this huge multiplier ran out of steam, corporations began working assiduously to deregulate industry and shift the tax burden back onto working families.

Investors are not evil people. They are, however, not the same as the public. Consumers are not the same thing as citizens. CEOs are not the same thing as public servants. The very fact that we are looking to private business to change its tune displays a profound misunderstanding of republican values and institutions, on the one hand, and of private equity on the other.

Do private investors care about their world? Of course they do. But, to the extent that they believe its future lies in their private market decisions, to this extent they fundamentally misunderstand the problem.

Immigration and The Post-Constitutional President

On Thursday (May 17), the liar-in-thief outlined an immigration overhaul that promised to “protect American wages, promote American values, and attract the best and brightest from all around the world.” I am going to ignore the deceit underlying the President’s proposal: the false assertion that low-wage foreign victims of violence and abuse are the cause for crime in the US. Those who have made it their lifelong pursuit to understand and document crime disagree: undocumented immigrants are overwhelmingly less likely to commit violent crimes than full-blown, domestically grown and raised citizens (LIGHT, M. T. and MILLER, T. (2018), DOES UNDOCUMENTED IMMIGRATION INCREASE VIOLENT CRIME?*. Criminology, 56: 370-401. doi:10.1111/1745-9125.12175); also https://www.nytimes.com/2019/05/13/upshot/illegal-immigration-crime-rates-research.html). Anyone who expects this President to tell the truth about anything is fooling themselves.

Instead I want to focus on the real heart of this proposal; the aim to overturn the citizenship clause in the Fourteenth Amendment to the US Constitution.

For the most part, the US Constitution is an exceptional document. But in one respect it is deeply and fundamentally flawed. In order to bring delegates from southern states to support the new Constitution, northern delegates were forced to concede that each souther slave would count as 3/5ths a non-slave for purposes of representation in the House of Representatives. The notorious 3/5ths clause established (1) that African slaves were private property (no path to citizenship); and (2) that private property would enjoy a seat and a say in the United States House of Representatives.

That is the legacy of Dread Scott v Sanford (60 U.S. (19 How.) 393 (1857)), which denied personhood to Mr Scott, a slave.

When the Fourteenth Amendment affirmed that “[a]ll persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside” its intention was not simply to overturn Dread Scott, but also to eliminate the seat that private property had enjoyed in the US Congress since 1787.

Uniquely in 1868, but still rare among the nations, the United States elected not to base citizenship on the unique qualities, qualifications, or wealth an individual brought to the table. If a person is born here, they belong here. That person enjoys all of the rights, privileges, and obligations of every other citizen, without distinction. Period.

The liar-in-thief’s immigration proposal, which aims to link immigration not to what unites us — our humanity — but to what distinguishes individuals from one another, is a bald attempt to reinstate Dread Scott. Persons fleeing violence, oppression, war and poverty need not apply. Only persons who enjoy wealth, education, and privilege are welcomed.

But the liar-in thief is also dead wrong on the fundamental economics of his proposal. If the President genuinely wished to “protect American wages” he would vigorously promote a strategy similar to his German counterpart who has made high quality, affordable education available to all German citizens, but without the debilitating debt that loan-sharks pile on every new generation of wage earners. Instead, the President is willing to concede defeat and allow highly skilled, well-educated foreigners take the high-wage positions that Americans are no longer qualified to fill. More poorly educated and trained Americans will then be forced into the low-wage, low-skill positions for which they are now uniquely qualified.

In the past, each new wave of immigrants stepped into the labor market at or near the bottom. The liar-in-thief wants to change that. He wants each new wave to step in at the top. An alternative strategy would be to make sure that the Americans who are already here are already “the best and the brightest from around the world.”

Finally, brandishing his post-Constitutional credentials, the liar-in-thief substitutes one lone “American value,” wealth, for the love of liberty, democratic process, and republican institutions and values. Because that is precisely how southern delegates saw things back in 1787 when they insisted that their private wealth — the private market value of their slaves as property — gain a seat in the House of Representatives.

In one matter alone is the President telling the truth: by playing H1Bs against asylum-seekers, he is openly admitting that its not about crime and not about freedom, but about money.

Grace: the slippery slope

Did anyone wish — and there are many who do — they could easily compile a very long list of passages from the Christian Bible condoning misogyny, slavery, and other vile and ignoble practices.

Slaves, in all things obey those who are your masters on earth, not with external service, as those who merely please men, but with sincerity of heart, fearing the Lord (Colossians 3:22).

Slaves, obey your earthly masters with respect and fear and sincerity of heart, just as you would show to Christ (Ephesians 6:5).

Wives, be subject to your own husbands, as to the Lord (Ephesians 5:22).

Moreover, not a great deal of digging will show that these “submission” passages were in complete agreement with the highest Stoic moral teachings of first century Palestine and, therefore, the most sophisticated theological teachings of Jewish moral philosophy; all nicely summed up in the Apostle Paul’s counsel to the Romans:

Every person is to be in subjection to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those which exist are established by God. Therefore whoever resists authority has opposed the ordinance of God; and they who have opposed will receive condemnation upon themselves.For rulers are not a cause of fear for good behavior, but for evil. Do you want to have no fear of authority? Do what is good and you will have praise from the same; for it is a minister of God to you for good. But if you do what is evil, be afraid; for it does not bear the sword for nothing; for it is a minister of God, an avenger who brings wrath on the one who practices evil. Therefore it is necessary to be in subjection, not only because of wrath, but also for conscience’ sake. For because of this you also pay taxes, for rulers are servants of God, devoting themselves to this very thing. Render to all what is due them: tax to whom tax is due; custom to whom custom; fear to whom fear; honor to whom honor (Romans 13:1-7).

Since there is no question but that these teachings brilliantly summarize pagan Stoic moral philosophy, Christians who embrace them rest their case ultimately on something like St Paul’s argument in Romans 1:

For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men who suppress the truth in unrighteousness, because that which is known about God is evident within them; for God made it evident to them. For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse. For even though they knew God, they did not honor Him as God or give thanks, but they became futile in their speculations, and their foolish heart was darkened. Professing to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the incorruptible God for an image in the form of corruptible man and of birds and four-footed animals and crawling creatures (18-22).

That is to say, Christians who defend the misogyny and slavery condoned by God in the Christian Bible must (and do) claim that, however flawed and fallen, Creation sufficiently reveals God’s “invisible attributes,” “eternal power,” and “divine nature,” to leave all people, be they ever so removed from “special revelation” (i.e., the Bible), “without excuse.” Stoics, notwithstanding their pagan understanding, are felt to have been sufficiently keen students of Creation to appreciate God’s “invisible attributes,” “eternal power,” and “divine nature.”

From which it follows that the misogyny and defense of slavery we find in Scripture owe their validity not to the limited, fallen, and flawed cultural forms of first century Palestine, but to the God Who reveals Him Self in Creation.

Let me suggest that any deviation from this, the clear teaching of Scripture will send the true Christian down a slippery slope that finds limited, fallen, and flawed cultural forms throughout Scripture and to avoid which Christians need to presume that even the most culturally and socially embedded biblical teachings — e.g., household, judicial and military codes — enjoy divine approval (I think, for example, of stoning or of David’s mass removal of the foreskins of enemy combatants).

Let me now suggest that this slippery slope is the slope of grace and that it comes with the full endorsement of Jesus Christ our Lord and Savior.

Recall that it is not extra-biblical or extra-canonical practices that the Psalmists, the Prophets, and then Jesus called into question during their lives, but commandments delivered directly by God to Moses on Sinai. That is to say, they are not merely “laws of men” posing as divine law. They enjoy the status of what some would call “special” as distinguished from “general” revelation.

On what grounds were they then found wanting?

Even the most superficial reading of St Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians will help us to see why these laws were found wanting: they were without grace.

Grace is the slippery slope down which we begin to slide once we abandon the security we find identifying Creation and what it is said to be “clearly reveal” with divine intention. Creation “clearly reveals” that the low-born, uninstructed, weak and powerless are victims of God’s divine wrath (see Romans 1-3). To which the Apostle replies in First Corinthians:

For consider your calling, brethren, that there were not many wise according to the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble; but God has chosen the foolish things of the world to shame the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of the world to shame the things which are strong, and the base things of the world and the despised God has chosen, the things that are not, so that He may nullify the things that are, so that no man may boast before God. But by His doing you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification, and redemption, so that, just as it is written, “Let him who boasts, boast in the Lord” (1:16-31).

This is not simply a deeper understanding of “general” revelation. It is an interpretation that leads one to the very opposite conclusion that one would reach through “general” revelation. It is grace.

Moreover, this grace is not on the page. It is not in the words. Building upon sola scriptura you will never reach this grace:

Yet we do speak wisdom among those who are mature; a wisdom, however, not of this age nor of the rulers of this age, who are passing away; but we speak God’s wisdom in a mystery, the hidden wisdom which God predestined before the ages to our glory; the wisdom which none of the rulers of this age has understood; for if they had understood it they would not have crucified the Lord of glory; 

but just as it is written,

         “Things which eye has not seen, and ear has not heard;
         And which have not entered the heart of man,
         All that God has prepared for those who love God.”

For to us God revealed them through the Spirit; for the Spirit searches all things, even the depths of God. For who among men knows the thoughts of a man except the spirit of the man which is in him? Even so the thoughts of God no one knows except the Spirit of God. Now we have received, not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, so that we may know the things freely given to us by God, which things we also speak, not in words taught by human wisdom, but in those taught by the Spirit, combining spiritual thoughts with spiritual words (2:6-13).

This is the slippery slope of grace that not only deepens, but fundamentally challenges what is “clearly revealed” not only in Creation, but Scripture itself.

When Christians reject misogynist passages in Scripture, when they reject slavery, or when they reject all institutions that subject one category of human being to another, they are cascading down the slippery slope . . . of grace.

Many Christians catch themselves sliding down this slope. Slavery is wrong, but wives should be subject to their husbands. Slavery is wrong, but democracy is OK. Or, wives and husbands are equal, but only if they are male and female; for, it is “clearly revealed” in Creation. We catch ourselves before taking the full plunge into grace. Yes to the ordination of women, but . . .

But what if grace is itself the slippery slope?

The Protestant Body: Reflections on the UMC decision

With great sadness and dismay I have read not so much the justifications as the explanations for the United Methodist’s decision to exclude GLBTQ priests from their communion. It is a much broader and more diverse communion than my own Episcopal Church, specially as we move outside the North Atlantic region. Granted. However, in my view, the problem runs much deeper and strikes at the core identity of Protestantism.

Diane Butler Bass captures the right tone when she counts the mass exodus from our churches and seminaries evidence of a fourth Great Awakening. Since the beginning, Protestantism has been Janus-faced regarding the body (and, obviously, the Body). In my Weber and the Persistence of Religion (London 2006), I show how this binary has been the Protestant signature since the sixteenth century. Secular bodies, divine souls.

Among Europeanists, this is uncontested. When in 1324 the abbot of St Pierre, in Ghent, ordered the fullers to install a clock in the workhouse recently erected by them, he set in motion a cascade of fatalities the likes of which had never before darkened history. For the first time anywhere, the value of productive human activity would be measured in equal units of abstract time. The good abbot could not have known it at the time, but his order was the signal event in the birth of capitalism, a social form that rests on the isolation of abstract value from its material form of appearance. Clocks had been spreading throughout Western Europe since the twelfth century. Wherever there was a monastery, there was need for accurately announcing times of prayer. But it was not until the fourteenth century that clocks began to find a different use: measuring the value of productive human activity.

Until then nominalism — a philosophy that isolates meaning from bodies — was an overwhelmingly minority opinion among theologians and philosophers. The practical isolation of abstract value from the bodies that produced and the bodies produced by productive human activity gave quotidian embodiment to and confirmation of the isolation of abstract value from its material forms of appearance. Over the course of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, religious practitioners became accustomed to differentiating the value of bodies from their material forms of appearance. When Luther tacked up his 95 Theses, the revolution whose authorship he claimed was already two centuries old. Faith and works; spirit and flesh; grace and merit — these pairings, already clothed in mystical Stoic clothing in the first century — won a new lease on life. Freed from the substance metaphysics that had dominated spiritual practice and reflection since forever, capitalism gave renewed vigor to the isolation of spirits from the bodies they merely occupied.

Only among sociologists of religion — and, today, only in America — is this scholarship contested. Protestantism — its fragmentation, to be sure, but also its dynamism — mirrors the creatively destructive movement of the capitalist social formation itself. Bodies — thinking, speaking, declaring, confessing, candle-illuminated , beclouded in incense, robed, kneeling, rising, crossing bodies in time and space — are sacrificed to their abstract, transcendental God. Anyone the least familiar with first century Jewish piety knows with absolute certainty that this isolation of bodies from spirits is completely foreign to biblical Jewish and Christian thought and practice. Bodies and their sacred character are central to both traditions.

When Protestants pull free from bodies, when they liberate themselves from bodies that weigh them down — traditions, customs, practices, relationships, words — and set their hearts upon things that cannot be seen, they show themselves to be handmaids of the capitalist social form whose forms they embody. This is specially so in their experience of the Holy Sacrament, but it also apparent in the disappearing wounds of Christ in iconography after 1500, and the simultaneous eroticization and androgynisation of Mary’s body, whose breasts are no longer permitted to feed the Church after 1500. M Foucault misunderstands the practical, social production of capitalist misogyny. But he absolutely grasps the oppression to which it gives rise.

There are simply too many studies from the high Middle Ages to overlook the broad sexual palette that informed Christians, say, in 600. And it is simply impossible to read Hebrew and Christian sacred texts without arriving at a similar conclusion.

On the one hand, this means that hostility to LGBTQ sexuality is a feature of neither Judaism, nor Christianity. It enjoys neither biblical nor historical foundation. It is, to the contrary, a product in its entirety of the capitalist social form and its immanent hostility to the body (and to the Body).

The tragedy is that many of us who are otherwise sympathetic with the LGBTQ community have bought into the narrative that fills its sails. Insofar as capitalism was the handmaiden to Protestantism at its birth, I believe this doctrinal error is a uniquely Protestant sin. We are uniquely troubled by bodies (and Bodies).

I interpret the UMC decision through the lens of this doctrinal error. Whenever we oppress bodies “spiritually,” we overlook and oppress the Body of the Spirit. For twelve centuries, the Church enjoyed a far deeper, more complex understanding of Bodies. Beginning in 1324, we began to elide bodies. It is the most serious doctrinal error committed by Protestantism. It has a future. It has a history.

Marxism and Economics; Part I

Is there such a thing as a specifically “Marxist” economics? Until 1918 and the coup that won Bolsheviks the authority to develop and implement economic policy in Russia, this question was, of course, completely theoretical. Until 1918, many economists — more than we might imagine — defended or criticized what they identified as “Marxist” economics; but, lacking an economy in which to implement their theories (or, in the alternative, lacking economy to illustrate how and why “Marxist” economics had failed), “Marxist” economics remained, quite literally, academic.

Nineteen Eighty Nine and the “End of History” (F Fukuyama) might appear to have answered the question once and for all: “Yes, there is such a thing as a specifically ‘Marxist’ economics; and, yes, it failed.” But even were we to conclude, as I do, that the economic policies implemented in the USSR are better described as state capitalist, not Marxist, it is still worth wondering whether there is such a thing as a specifically “Marxist” economics. For the sake of clarity, I would not count specifically “Marxist” an economic policy that displays a preference for the poor, or for workers, or, more generally, for the marginalized or for minorities. Nor would I count specifically “Marxist” economic policies that socialize some — or even all — sectors of the economy. These policies might be advisable or ill-advised. But when we sit down to “run the numbers” and “measure outcomes” (i.e. winners and losers), economists, given the same data, irrespective of their ideological or moral or social or political commitments, will generate the same curves and the same outcomes. Even if we draw different conclusions from the data, which is normal in economics, all economists embrace the same set of models, the same high-level principles.

Again, for clarity’s sake, no one will contest, I am confident, that beginning in the 1970s the Soviet economy began to falter and that in 1989 it failed. Nor can it be said that it “failed” only because it was isolated and targeted by western capitalist powers. Had western capitalist powers adopted the policies that governed the Soviet economy, they too would have failed. They would have failed in the only task any economy should aspire to fulfill: distributing the marginal product in such a manner as to avoid systemic failure. On this scale, the Soviet Union was not the only economy to suffer collapse in the 1980s and 1990s — mostly, but not exclusively, state capitalist. But, more importantly, in all cases mainstream economic analysis has appeared perfectly competent to explain why these economies failed.

So I will repeat what K Marx claimed in his mature social theory; namely that the interpretive categories of “bourgeois economics” were and remained “valid” for analyzing any society whose social relations are mediated by the production and exchange of commodities:

They are forms of thought which are socially valid, and therefore objective, for the relations of production historically adequate to societies whose social relations are mediated by commodity production [objektive Gedankenformen für die Produktionsverhältnisse dieser historisch bestimmten gesellschaftlichen Produktionsweise, der Warenproduktion] (K Marx Capital vol 1:165, translation altered for clarity).

So long as an economy produces and distributes commodities — irrespective of who owns the means of production, the marginal product, or how the social product is distributed — the categories of bourgeois economics will, claims K Marx, maintain their validity.

Is there such a thing as a specifically “Marxist” economics? No.

No? But, then, why all the fuss, the work camps, the Gulag, the centralized planning, the shortages, the bottlenecks, the overproduction? Why 1918 to 1989?

Let me propose that K Marx found the categories of bourgeois economics deficient in one and only one respect: they were insufficiently rigorous. Rather than counting value a socially and historically determinate variable, bourgeois economists were inclined to both transcendentalize and functionalize value; but, in both cases, to place value beyond critical scrutiny. To quote K Marx’s contemporary, William Stanley Jevons:

If there is any fact certain about exchange value, it is, that it means not an object at all, but a circumstance of an object. . . . The word Value, so far as it can be correctly used, merely expresses the circumstance of its exchanging in a certain ratio for some other substance (Theory 1871:77).

Within the universe of bourgeois economics, value is not “a thing or an object, or even . . . anything which lies in a thing or object” (ibid.). More specifically, value is neither derived, nor derivable, from labor:

There are . . . those who assert that labour is the cause of value. I show, on the contrary, that we have only to trace out carefully the natural laws of the variation of utility, as depending upon the quantity of commodity in our possession, in order to arrive at a satisfactory theory of exchange, of which the ordinary laws of supply and demand are a necessary consequence” (1-2; emphasis added).

Where classical economists like Adam Smith mistook labor for the source of all wealth (Wealth 1776:i.v.47), bourgeois economists recognized that labor itself acquired its value only from the ratios in which it was exchangeable for other commodities; other commodities which were, in turn, exchangeable for discrete amounts of every other commodity in direct proportion to the utility these commodities held, not for individual sellers, buyers, or consumers, but for markets in aggregate. Supply and demand, Jevons therefore correctly maintained, were not the cause, but the consequence of “natural laws” governing variations in utility. It follows that observation of the production and consumption of the lone individual will tell us nothing whatsoever about economic value.

But, when we consider the consumption of a nation as a whole, the consumption [of any individual] may well be conceived to increase or diminish by quantities which are, practically speaking, infinitely small compared with the whole consumption. The laws . . . are to be conceived as theoretically true of the individual; they can only be practically verified as regards the aggregate transactions, productions, and consumptions of a large body of people (48; emphasis added).

Value in bourgeois economics is therefore not only “the circumstance of its exchanging in a certain ratio for some other substance” (77; emphasis in original), but, according to Jevons, it is an abstract social substance deemed “theoretically true of the individual.” Or, as Jevons later puts it:

When we speak of the ration of exchange of pig-iron and gold, there can be no possible doubt that we intend to refer to the ratio of the number of units of the one commodity to the number of units of the other commodity for which it exchanges, the units being arbitrary concrete magnitudes, but the ratio an abstract number” (82; emphasis added).

“Marxist” economists will fault bourgeois economics of the sort practiced by William Stanley Jevons for his rejection of “Marx’s” labor theory of value; when, in fact, what he rejected was Adam Smith, David Ricardo, and Thomas Malthus’ labor theory of value: “As to Ricardo, Malthus, Adam Smith, and other great English economists, . . . I am not aware that they ever explicitly apply the name ratio to exchange or exchangeable value” (82). Jevons was right. They do not. But Karl Marx will, most notably in his 1867 Das Kapital. “We have seen,” Marx wrote, “that when commodities are in the relation of exchange, their exchange-value manifests itself as something totally independent of their use-value” (Marx 1982:128).

This sounds very close to Jevons’ claim. It is. But there is a difference. Like Marx, Jevons had denied that value might be a quality found in things. And, like Marx, Jevons too counted value an abstract social substance. But, as we have seen, unlike Marx, Jevons was eager to ground value in natural laws: “we have only to trace out carefully the natural laws of the variation of utility . . . in order to arrive at a satisfactory theory of exchange, of which the ordinary laws of supply and demand are a necessary consequence.” Marx, by contrast, had by 1876 given up on his search for natural laws, whether of history or of economics. To be sure, value, Marx agreed, describes a relationship between exchangeable goods, not in an isolated exchange, but in aggregate across an entire market and, in fact, across global markets. Yet Marx was willing to pursue this line of analysis far more rigorously than Jevons. Abstract value did not halt at the doorstep of labor. Labor — labor in the abstract — was instead value’s “natural,” or, rather, value’s naturalized home.

Jevons was correct. Empirical, individual labor was not the source of value. And to the extent that this was the position of Adam Smith or David Ricardo or Thomas Malthus, then Marx agreed: they were mistaken. But the fault Marx found among classical economists was not their having mistaken labor for the source of value. The fault he found was in their level of abstraction. It was from labor in the abstract, in aggregate, that goods, also in aggregate, acquired their abstract value. In Marx’s view, then, Jevons’ return to utility counted as a theoretical regression. So eager was Jevons to establish the natural and therefore necessaryscientific character of value, that he was willing to ground it empirically in the utilitarian binary pleasure and pain. “As Senior most accurately says, ‘Utility denotes no intrinsic quality in the things we call useful; it merely expresses their relations to the pains and pleasures of mankind'” (Theory 43). But, surely, if anything defies abstraction, surely pains and pleasures do. Pains and pleasures, specifically, cannot be measured in aggregate. And they, most definitely, are not quantities measurable across all of mankind “mankind.”

Marx will agree with the bourgeois economists:

If we abstract from their use-value, there remains their value, as it has just been defined. The common factor in the exchange relation, or in the exchange value of the commodity, is therefore its value. The progress of the investigation will lead us back to exchange-value as the necessary mode of expression, or form of appearance, of value (Marx 1982:128).

Where he differs is in his readiness to consider value not from the vantage point of quasi-natural, empirical qualities such as pleasure and pain, but to count all value, including labor, in the abstract as socially and historically determinate. Bourgeois economists, such as Jevons, insisted that value described a market-wide ratio among values in the abstract. Marx agreed. And it was because he agreed that he found fault with their attempts to ground value empirically, whether in pleasure or pain or in some other (quasi-)natural law of economics.

There is no mystery over why Marx found fault with bourgeois economists. He agreed with GWF Hegel. The world, as a whole, had reached a point where it had become aware of the conditions of its own production. It had reached this point because the subjective principles governing individual social action had constituted a social world adequate to — i.e., in agreement with — individual subjectivity. Where Marx differed from Hegel was in the identity of the Agent each credited with this universal coherence. Hegel credited this universal coherence to a Weltgeist, a world spirit who’s inner principle was to externalize, objectify, itself and then expand to reincorporate this externalization into its own Being. Through this process, spanning all of history, the world had grown conscious of itself as both spirit and objective truth: as objective spirit.

The young Marx, 1843-1850, had differed with this Hegelian interpretation only in one respect. What Hegel had called the Weltgeist, Marx identified as “real man.” To this extent, the young Marx was a humanist and a romantic. Over the course of the 1850s, however, Marx became convinced that the substitution of Man for Weltgeist failed to accurately grasp the social and historical specificity of the spirit at work in the modern age. His conversion to neoclassical economic theory at the end of 1850s has often been counted a regression. But, in our interpretation, it is a step forward. Yes, the integration of the world into a coherent whole can legitimately be ascribed to labor, to labor in the abstract; or — and this is the same thing — to value in the abstract. But we might equally describe this comprehensive integration as the form of domination unique to the contemporary world.

When neoclassical economists characterize the comprehensive, universal coherence of the the dominant social form, are they describing something different than what Marx describes in Capital? Yet because Marx grounds his characterizations historically and socially — when he shows how this coherence is generated by capital — he is also showing the conditions under which this domination might be superseded.

Is this a specifically “Marxist” economics? And in what does its specificity consist?

Christmas and the Information Fallacy

Surely did we only let people know, they would change their minds, reform their conduct, and make it right. Surely, except that it simply is not so.

Image result for christmas quattrocento
“The Nativity” Piero di Giovanni. ca. 1406–10. Gallery 952. The Met Fifth Avenue

True, information is indispensable. But by itself it counts for very little. Because we see and hear and understand only what we can. I suspect that God, the Infinite One, that Greater than Which Cannot be Thought, the “Immortal, Invisible, God only Wise” (Hymn No. 424) arrives in Bethlehem, born of an unwed refugee, to make just that point.

“You believe you have placed God at an infinite distance from what is perishable out of respect and devotion; while the truth is that you cannot bear the thought — much less the experience — of God in your world. So, here!”

And so the prophecies and the star and the shepherds and (twelve days later on Epiphany) the wise men — all of that information: Emmanuel, God with us. And (not simply for the sake of coherence or consistency): yes, He Who is born will die, naturally, unnaturally (it hardly matters). God will die. Got that?

Information gold. And we still do not get it.

What we are in need of is not information, but knowledge. We need to know how it is not only possible, but necessary for this God to become flesh; not only possible, but necessary that this God be poor, in need, in turmoil — not at peace, not tranquil, not disembodied, but incarnate. We need to know why His birth announces trouble for (and eventual annihilation of) all principalities and powers.

But to know this we need to reject what we believe we know: Gods cannot be human; Gods cannot suffer; Gods cannot be finite; Gods do not reject power; Gods do not embrace poverty; Gods cannot experience pain; Gods cannot die. These things we know we need to unknow, not because they are based on unreliable information. They are based on the best information. But they are not grounded in the knowledge of the Son of Man.

This we begin to know more fully in Bethlehem.