Disintegration of the Bourgeois Brain
by Olga Bonfiglio
This month’s U.S. Senate vote to approve Michael Mukasey’s nomination for attorney general essentially sanctioned torture. It is yet another example of Congressional complicity in this Age of Terror with a zealous administration that routinely dismisses Constitutional protections in the name of “national security.” Torture joins other overt breaches of justice including the USA PATRIOT Act, spying on Americans, suspension of habeas corpus for foreign nationals, rendition and lying our country into a war. Professor Rudi Siebert, calls this period of our history one marked by the “disintegration of the bourgeois brain.”
Siebert, 83, teaches, writes and speaks about religion and society as a full-time professor at Western Michigan University. However, his journey to WMU included experience as a member of the Catholic Youth Movement that opposed Hitler, a draftee into the German Army, an 18-kill fighter pilot against Allied forces, an infantry leader of 250 men against General Patton’s tanks and a prisoner of war-all occurring by the time he was 17 years old.
Professor Siebert says that modern Western nations, including the United States as the first constitutional republic, were shaped by the heady 17th and 18th century Enlightenment where “modernism” was born. One of the tenets of modernism is that laws and secular morality are one means of averting violence and war. In the 20th century, international controls like the Geneva Convention, the United Nations, and NATO were designed to foster restraint and discourse as the necessary vehicles to avert war. However, says Siebert, today even these institutions are losing their effectiveness.
Modernism began when the bourgeoisie, comprised of urban middle class merchants, financiers, and intellectuals, emerged as the ruling class and thus superceded the power and authority of the Church and the monarchy. As mercantilism (1600-1800) took hold during the age of exploration and colonialism, society gradually became more secularized and science replaced religion as the primary way of constructing knowledge and reality.
Knowledge and reality could be observed and puzzled out by anyone rather than only by the pronouncements of a king or a priest-just as the Protestant Reformation allowed ordinary, non-clerical people to interpret the Scriptures. Science became the source for Truth rather than belief, superstition, or obedience to an authority. Scientific rationalism provided a systematized decision-making process of critical analysis rather than inspiration or royal decree. These elements made straight the way toward the Industrial Revolution (1750 in England, 1830 in the United States) when the machine became the new hegemon.
Government and economics adopted the scientific method, too, and saw society as a clock, the prevailing image of the Enlightenment: a mechanical device that is measured and constant. Indeed, the framers of the U.S. Constitution were all members of the bourgeoisie, Siebert points out. Contrary to what the Religious Right says, our Founding Fathers used the principles of modernism to create a just society where everyone had an equal chance to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
By the twentieth century, modernism had affected Western society such that some people saw society as fragmented, complex, technological, and economically-oriented. Urban lifestyles overtook rural lifestyles, which impacted values and mindsets. The family also began to disintegrate, communities became more impersonal and transient, and all the values associated with small town life and agriculture were replaced increasingly by a society that resembled the machine with its values of speed, mechanization, mass production, uniformity, atomization, and specialization. The bourgeoisie invented organizations to run this society. These became known as corporations.
Other developments emerged in this new, corporate, technological society. As more and more people streamed into the cities in greater numbers, ideas about tolerance surfaced, minorities and women won their full rights of citizenship, unions worked to provide people a decent living, education became available to all people as a right and the poor and infirm were taken care of by the state. These strides were made possible by the bigger governments of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal-and Hitler’s Third Reich.
Siebert says that the 21st century is now seeing these bourgeois values and structures disintegrate with nothing to replace them. The fundamental categories that we use to describe our lives and understand ourselves are no longer there. There is a lack of consistency, even in the language used. Siebert provides some examples:
· Donald Rumsfeld said that he was taught in school never to attack other countries. But now he says that today is different and he helped plan a pre-emptive strike against Iraq. These are language games learned in the university. Actually, it’s the Constitution that says we cannot conduct a pre-emptive strike, however, the watchmen over our supreme law of the land are not there-the Congress and the Supreme Court should challenge the president as a matter of duty.
· We pray for our heroic soldiers that they will keep out of harm’s way. Yet, they use murderous weapons to kill other people, 90 percent of whom are civilians.
· We have our soldiers bomb civilians to pieces and then pray our enemies don’t bomb us. This will weaken any moral existence!
· People say today: “I trust my president.” Well, people trusted Hitler, too, some until the end of the war, even with rubble all around them.
· We can’t have a war against terrorism because the terrorists are not a state. So we attack a state. The first one was Afghanistan. The second one, Iraq. After that, we plan to attack Iran. Meanwhile, the object of terrorism, Osama Bin Laden, is still at large.
The new world order that George H.W. Bush proclaimed after the fall of communism in the late 1980s has become the “new world dis-order,” according to Siebert. And war with Iraq makes that “dis-order” even more evident as members of bourgeois institutions are even more shaken, split or made impotent.
“Once you break open the system, all the structures fall,” says Siebert. “Bourgeois society is crumbling. There is no opposition party to replace it. Not even a new paradigm can do that. Consequently, in its absence what will we get? In Germany in the 1930s we got fascism.”
What the United States gets remains to be seen but some people already believe that we have inadvertently expanded our national security state so that checks and balances and the separation of powers provided by our Constitution are ignored, the opposition party has been silenced and manipulated, elections are fixed and the Bill of Rights are compromised-all in the name of fighting terrorism. But how did this happen to the most free, most powerful, most diverse nation in the world’s history? Stay tuned.
Olga Bonfiglio is a professor at Kalamazoo College in Kalamazoo, Michigan, and author of Heroes of a Different Stripe: How One Town Responded to the War in Iraq. She has written for several national magazines on the subjects of social justice and religion. Her website is www.OlgaBonfiglio.com. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.