Christ, COVID, and Capital
This text was written as part of the LSC Pamphlet Program. It reflects only the opinions of the author(s) and not the consensus of the Libertarian Socialist Caucus.
by Anthony Moss, Ed.M., M.Div.
A number of us came to our libertarian socialist commitments not through the normal exposure to luminaries like Prodhoun, Bookchin or Kropotkin, but through the unlikely medium of religious histories and writings. We only then supplemented our religious doctrines with secular theory, often taking a meandering detour through one form of Marxism or another. The time-worn slogan, “no gods, no masters”, represents the better part of the libertarian tradition—and not without ample justification. The religious right in the United States continues to call into question the social utility and ongoing relevance of religion in public life. There has been no enemy more inimical to the spirit of genuine religion than the American evangelical. Not even Bakunin, Blanqui or Bertrand Russell could have de-converted more of the faithful than fundamentalists themselves have over the past century or so. However, at a time when apocalyptic language so easily enters public assessments of the current pandemic—how it upends all of the familiar features of our common social topography—it may be worth taking another look at how religion can prove a useful ally in these uncertain times.
To be sure, I am writing from an expressly Judeo-Christian perspective here, though Buddhism, neopaganism and other religious traditions have also found their own accord with libertarian ideas. A Christian who subscribes to libertarian socialist principles is often deemed “fringe” by anarchists and Christians alike, a living oxymoron who likely understands neither anarchism nor the ligatures between religion and power. However, as our collective anxieties run high and we are often quarantined with our own naked, “un-distracted” sense of self, we are frequently forced into a space where existential questions are brought to the fore. Religion has a way of forcing us to consider the real versus the illusory, whether from the standpoint of Althusserian ideology or spiritual conviction. As such, many Americans are awakening simultaneously to their newfound monasticism and the deep social fissures created by the failures of both capital and state.
Crisis and the Ancient Worldview
In drawing parallels between our own crisis and Christian history, we see at once that the primitive church was well-acquainted with plague and scarcity. They navigated with confidence the vagaries of uncertainty, pinning their hopes on a transcendent reality and an alternative imagination of how to live. They were also practitioners of radical mutual aid and inclusivity, actions that have inspired countless sects and communities throughout the centuries, notably the Anabaptists, Bogomils, Beghards, Diggers and Dukhobors. In more recent times, followers of Leo Tolstoy stand out as the strictest adherents to his religious version of anarcho-pacifism, followed by members of the Catholic Worker movement, of whom Ammon Hennacy, Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin were the most prominent. Many of these early groups were the direct forerunners of the secular socialisms that we have inherited today, but whose champions have been all but lost to the annals of history. There may well be many more anti-authoritarian groups within the late ancient and early medieval periods, but violent suppression by the established church has made textual sources particularly difficult to locate.
Let’s take two historical events as sources of inspiration for our current crisis of COVID and capital: the famine of Claudius in the first century CE (as recorded in the New Testament Book of Acts) and the plague of Cyprian in 249. I preface the following by saying that “finding religion” is not uncommon in times of upheaval, and one need not be a conventional theist, of course, to invoke the divine, as any supplicant to Avalokiteśvara or Amitābha will show. In fact, there is a statistical correlation between material security and levels of nonbelief, which is why Scandinavian nations tend to subscribe to atheism at higher rates than, say, those in sub-Saharan Africa. American religiosity is an anomaly in this respect, deeply enmeshed in the nation’s haughty self-sense of exceptionalism and its historical ‘civilizing’ mission. In mentioning these episodes of Christian history, it is the social and prophetic imagination of the church that stands out, not its religiosity as such. In other words, the lay church interpreted times of devastation as opportunities for the “revolution of God” to unfold on the margins of empire and at what we would call today, ‘the grassroots.’ Not only was the state irrelevant to the “divine order of things,” the biblical tradition explicitly portrayed the existence of the imperial state as an active impediment to the realization of a social order that affirmed life, equality, and human dignity. Libertarian socialists today can agree with them on at least this much. From the Egypt of the Exodus, the Medo-Persians and Babylonians of the exile and the Seleucids and Romans of the Maccabees, Hebraic religion has always protested state oppression. The early Christians’ opposition to Rome was an extension of this basic impulse.
Behind early Christianity’s efforts at social change was the view that the universe was teleological, meaning that history has a singular goal toward which it is working (or is providentially guided). To the Jews who made up the early church, this was an eschatological (end-times) goal in which social justice would find its fullest and most complete expression. It was, therefore, the task of the church to anticipate that society and model it in their present communities, creating a tension that theologians today call the “already, but not yet” in eschatology. (A political analogy would be the proposition that anarchism is primarily a way of being and relating to the structures of power, rather than a dogmatic-scientific blueprint for “the revolution” and the future stateless society. But then again, one could claim that all socialisms as such are inherently millenarian, taking their cues from Judeo-Christian antecedents.)
This worldview contradicted at the time the prevailing assumption that nature was eternal and cyclical, an interminable process of suffering, death, and rebirth. Having no beginning and no end, the natural way of things engendered a kind of fatalism that we see evident in Sophocles or in the Upanishads. In contrast, the “end of days” would disrupt and supplant the way things always had been, but it was ultimately anticipated with hope. This is what made Christianity so wildly popular with women, slaves and outcasts, seeing as how the systems of oppression and abuse would be forever abolished with the coming of “the end.” This kind of eschatological hope is very much at variance with the “doom-and-gloom” of contemporary end-times preachers and neo-Malthusian augurs, for whom the phrases “apocalypse,” “end times” and such are bywords for human extinction. To the early church, disruptions and crises were seen as painful but necessary birth pangs, opportunities to practice in advance the alternative way of being that had been presaged by the Messiah during his earthly incarnation. We see floating around social media the pithy advice to, “Stop imagining the Apocalypse and start imagining the revolution.” The early Christians didn’t see much a difference between the two.
Religious Sources of Mutual Aid
In the Book of Acts—which records the events surrounding the formation of the primitive church in Jerusalem and her early apostolic activity—the reader is directed straightaway to the one of the clearest descriptions of egalitarianism and mutualism in the New Testament. It also happened against the backdrop of a crippling famine that destabilized the Roman empire, Israel chafing under the yoke of vassalage at the time. However, when Acts describes in chapters 2 and 4 the mutual aid practiced by the nascent church at Jerusalem, it does so not just to describe the early Christians incidentally supporting each other during the hardship. Rather, it is depicted as a quasi-realized fulfillment of the Torah’s economic imagination (in the books of Leviticus and Deuteronomy, for example; cf. Lev 25:1–4, 8–10; Deu 24:19–22), an ideal to which the prophets constantly called a wayward and selfish nation. The eschatology of the early church was in many ways an enlargement of these Jewish expectations surrounding distributive justice. Only through the spiritual renewal of Pentecost (described in Acts) could the community be enabled to hold their property so lightly, out of a shared commitment to compassion and to one another. Apologists of private property rights try their best to relativize these passages, to depict them as unsustainable or a well-intentioned (if naïve) response to what the early church believed to be an imminent (and destructive) transformation of the cosmos. There are coded criticisms of Roman attitudes towards property and commerce throughout the New Testament (the terribly exploitative and environmentally-destructive latifundia system, for instance) and as the cultural hearth of Christianity moved away from Palestine to Rome, its apocalyptic imprecations fell deaf on foreign ears. Later church conceptions of private property had little to do with Jewish millenarianism. Careful observers will note, however, that the language of these texts implies a sense of universal purpose, a “unity” echoed even in the ideals of Greco-Roman thinkers like Diogenes and Plutarch. Unity of heart and soul in the knowledge of God is a recurring theme that stitches together the various statutes of Deuteronomy, found not least in the Shema (6:5), the keystone of the Jewish faith and a declaration through which Israel is enjoined to love God with all one’s “soul, mind, and strength.”
Having a unitary purpose is also a refrain of the prophets (cf., Jer 32:29; Ezek 11:19), reinforcing the premise that the events at Pentecost were not an incidental one-off, but the fulfillment of an ongoing and ancient expectation. When the texts in Acts consciously refer back to the jubilee (debt forgiveness) laws, we have a strong intertextual indication that the New Testament continued to place limits on individual property to the extent that it came at the expense of community welfare. This is a timely message when the current economic meltdown caused by COVID-19 threatens to put much of the population under a state of debt peonage, a kind of feudalism-by-plague. In keeping with the rest of the Christian message, however, the New Testament doesn’t demand mutual aid through legislative fiat, as previously in the Torah, but through the voluntarism and ego-deference that proceeds from a transformed heart. After all, Jesus and his disciples themselves shared from a common purse, operating at a subsistence level and donating any excess in funds or commodities to the poor (Lk 9:3, 10:4; Jn 12:5, 13:24). We might think of the early church as experimenting with voluntary socialism, mutual aid or a “gift economy” (all to use anachronistic terms, of course).
The pre-Constantinian church practiced mutual aid as a result of its alienation from the structures of an imperial economy. To profess that “Jesus was Lord” was an unmistakable act of political defiance against the symbols of Roman imperial domination. If Christ was “Lord,” then Caesar was not. Thus, when Christians collected funds to emancipate slaves and when Roman citizens abandoned unwanted infants, leaving them to die of exposure, they subverted the paterfamilias social order by rescuing and adopting them. Furthermore, Christians heroically overcame their own instinct of self-preservation during the horrific “plague of Cyprian,” which nearly spelled the end of the Roman empire in the third century CE. Thousands of Romans died each day, threatening to depopulate the city and its environs. Not only were Christians scapegoated as the cause of the plague—having roused the wrath of the Greco-Roman gods with their apostasy—they were initially mocked for their compassion, subject to the irrisiones infidelium. While Roman patricians fled from the epidemic, Christians buried not only their own dead but those of impoverished Romans, who they washed and cared for, feeding as many as three thousand on a given day. The Roman government’s later efforts to emulate the Christian model ultimately failed because it rested upon a sense of civic duty rather than authentic love and solidarity with the poor. The state could not do what strong fictive kinship networks could, especially when organized around the transcendent ideals of love and self-sacrifice. Emperor Julian at the time complained bitterly of how “the Galileans” eroded the honor and esteem of the state in this way.
Christians and Postcapitalist Transition
Many of us believe that our present COVID-19 crisis may be a proverbial “blessing in disguise,” as things would have it. Where many average Americans see only threats to our vaunted capitalist way of life, socialists see the opportunity to dispel these cherished illusions. Like the early Christians, we contend with an incompetent state ailing from imperial overstretch and the indifferent decadence of its ruling classes. Like the early Christians, we are forced to innovate new social realities while weathering the brutality of neoliberal globalization and “disaster capitalism”. They, too, believed that negligence in times of emergency was equivalent to murder. As the first Christians were trying to establish local networks of post-imperial transition (ergo, the far-flung churches across Asia Minor, Greece, and Italy), so do we have the opportunity to re-localize production and develop resilient communities that aren’t dependent on either state oblige noblesse or unsustainable international supply chains. While some of the early apostles used Roman infrastructure to great effect (distributing relief during the famine of Claudius, for example), it would not have existed without imperial expansion and vast reserves of disposable slaves. Pandemics, above all, are a direct result of deep human connectivity, which are, in turn, creatures of the state and the infrastructures they create. After all, the creation of the interstate highway system and modern logistics were made possible only through the vast wartime supply chains that fed and provided materiel to servicemen fighting to secure American interests across the Pacific and Europe. The bubonic plague, which decimated the populations of Europe, the Middle East, and China in the fourteenth century, was a recurring illness initially confined to the Central Asian steppes until Silk Road caravans served as vectors to high-density urban centers. In our own heavily interconnected age, pandemics are becoming a recurring phenomenon every few years. The most devastating in recent memory was the so-called “Spanish influenza” of 1918, but in just the past couple of decades of the new millennium we’ve already grappled with SARS, MERS, Ebola, and the now the COVID-19 pandemic. The state maintains and profits off the very infrastructures that jeopardize public health, particularly at a time when intercontinental commerce and leisure travel should be limited out of concern for a deteriorating global climate. As Marxist geographer David Harvey notes, “The modes of consumerism which exploded after [the recession of] 2007–8 have crashed with devastating consequences. These modes were based on reducing the turnover time of consumption as close as possible to zero.” In other words, economic growth has been very much tied to the intensification of supply chains and exponentially reducing the time from demand to consumption, not only to maximize profitability but keep the model itself sustainable. It is not cheap to retrieve warehoused goods from China and have them delivered to one’s door in a single day’s time. With supply chains freezing up (read, Amazon.com), these economic gains are evaporating.
Like the early Christians, we have the opportunity to use the present pandemic to normalize “extraordinary” and “emergency” measures, which were actually feasible all along despite decades of neoliberal denial. Telecommuting, mass debt cancellations, a universal basic income are just some of the more ‘statist’ tools that we are recognizing are not only possible, but necessary to circumvent economic collapse. When social recommendations to pursue degrowth are ridiculed because of the “grow-or-die” logic inherent to capitalism, the COVID-19 pandemic proves that it can grind to a screeching halt in a matter of weeks if the situation is deemed urgent and widespread enough. We can manage economic contraction when necessary; economic functions are not natural laws that inexorably abide by their own rules. Despite the slapdash efforts currently being made by the state, we have the ability to steer “ad hoc” measures into something more expansive and steady-state. Perhaps, imagination would have it, the crisis can collectively shift our priorities towards non-consumptive modes of meaning-making, of art, culture and—yes—religion, too.
While the public at large may be getting a kind of ersatz acquaintance with so-called “degrowth” principles, economic depressions have too many negative corollaries to be compared to deliberate downscaling. The Torah was much concerned with creating order out of the primordial chaos and the COVID-19 crisis can be our “Genesis” moment as libertarian socialists, creating something from the void of total economic paralysis and state ineptitude. Libertarian municipalism makes sense in this context, assuming we can purposefully exploit and replace the breakdown in traditional forms of capitalist production and organization. This goes beyond the immediate needs of survival, as in the famine of Claudius, to a more “eschatological” vision of post-capitalist village economies. Or perhaps, again, the two are really one and the same. As the crisis is showing us, we cannot depend on transcontinental supply chains, the sea shipping lanes secured by the power projection of the United States military. Peak oil is making these global chains difficult to sustain, not to mention the imperial costs of enforcing a globalized export-driven system gathered under the legal control of Western capital (as it has been since the establishment of the postwar Bretton Woods system).
The same technological trends that are undermining traditional forms of wage labor—automation, digitization, telecommunications and so on—make direct production for use in the informal, social and household economies much more economically feasible and accessible to the average worker-consumer. The left-libertarian Kevin Carson summarizes, “Cheap open-source CNC machine tools, networked information and digital platforms, permaculture and community gardens, alternative currencies and mutual credit systems—these all reduce the scale of feasible production for many goods to the household, multiple household and neighborhood levels, and similarly reduce the capital outlays required for directly producing [small-scale] consumption needs…” As the crisis of COVID-19 forces us to consider how to relocalize many economic functions, we can feasibly envision the emergence of mixed, decentralized agricultural/industrial villages and the direct worker control of local production. Failing businesses can be transformed into workers’ cooperatives that are re-imagined into commons-based operations and away from the “collective capitalism” model, to the extent that these are committed to producing goods for the public benefit. Supply chains can become shared for mutual coordination and for a just distribution mechanism that acknowledges all labor contributions along the production process. After decades of dismantling the welfare state, neoliberalism can do little but inject fictitious capital into the money supply. The only alternative the state has is to re-socialize the entire economy of the United States without calling it “socialism” as such. Barring a miraculous shift in political will, we can only hope to use this crisis to urge common Americans to pool risks, costs, and resources in self-conscious acts of class consciousness and solidarity. When supply chains break down, communities can pool individually owned tools, reduce idle capacity, and satisfy an increased share of consumption needs outside the crumbling wage system. Even MIT has recently provided open-source plans for homebuilt ventilators in order to correct the acute shortage confronting medical clinics. This is a tacit recognition that allegedly eternal laws of supply-and-demand are failing us at a critical time. However, as economies of scale are achieved, cooperative models of production gaining popularity, we may find a new society being birthed in the shell of the old, not unlike the burgeoning Christian community on the eve of old Roman collapse.
To conclude, Christian history and theology anticipated in important ways those grassroots citizens coalitions that operate outside conventional political parties and state structures. In turn, they created resilient, self-reliant communities that used fictive kinship networks to promote cohesion and solidarity. They were in many practical ways the forerunners of modern libertarian socialism. In these uncertain and isolating times, it is natural for people to seek meaning, comfort, and stability. We shouldn’t disparage people’s religious or spiritual impulses, but encourage them to explore how their faith traditions might help imagine a post-scarcity society in which all of us can thrive. The present COVID-19 crisis might just supply the opportunity to have those kinds of conversations with our neighbors, religion creating an opening not often available in standard political discourses.
Shameless plug, but I would encourage readers to check out the book I wrote last year, which deals with these themes: On the Precipice: Radicalized Faith in an Age of Collapse. You can email me at anthonymoss (at) gmail.com for a free PDF version.