New Directions for Catholic Social and Political Research: Humanity vs. Hyper-Modernity, Guido Preparata, (ed.) Palgrave MacMillan, 319 pages

The future is notoriously uncertain but nonetheless, legion have been the prognostications put forth over the years by many of our most prescient observers in the West regarding a coming society that will resemble nothing so much as an giant ant-heap or a beehive, or what Chesterton called “The Termite State.” Think Lewis Mumford’s conjecture of a coming “Mega-Machine,” where humans are interchangeable appendages in a centrally controlled system, or the insights of the Canadian literary critic Northrop Frye who warned that a science seen not as a mental construct but as an “oracle of reality” inevitably becomes the tail that wags the dog and “what begins as reason ends in the conditioned reflexes of an insect state, where human beings have become cerebral automata.” Writing long before the work of Pixar and DreamWorks, the British novelist and philosopher John Cowper Powys, perhaps the most perceptive of observers of the coming insect state, began to suspect that people were even looking more and more like insects and conjectured, “If, through some enormous moving-picture, we could get a few close-ups of ants, there can be little doubt but that we should feel as if we were looking in a mirror.” We’ve done it, and yes, that.  And on the day of his death, Antoine de Saint-Exupery, author of The Little Prince, echoed this theme of human ants when he wrote, “The future termite mounds are built by huge ants. The future termite mound frightens me. If I return someday from this necessary but thankless duty [of flying an airplane], only one question will be asked of me: What should one say to human beings to make them become human beings?”

Good question, Antoine.

Now it’s something like this contrast between a hive and a world organized, to paraphrase E. F. Schumacher, “as if people mattered” that lies at the heart of the antagonism explored in this book between humanity and “hyper-modernity.” Hypermodernity understood, sociologically, as the name for a movement which blends biology and technology (“cerebral automota”), inverts the traditional role of form and function (home vs. hive) and promotes the idea of “instantaneity” which has the effect of displacing, among other things, the importance of history and of seeking improvement through the work and dirt of politics. Technicians, instead, run the show.

The analysis that the book contains cuts across our normal political categories in a way that brings to mind Bill Kauffman’s observation made just prior to the advent of Hypermodernity (which is often equated with September 11, 2001): “As is so often the case as this bloody century winds down, the divisions are not between liberals and conservatives, or socialists and free marketeers, but between the local and the remote, the village and the globe, the flesh and blood and the abstract.” The contributors to the volume self-identify as part of a “compassionate” and “pacifistic” tradition, rooted in community and so, for them, “flesh and blood” things like bodies and body counts matter.

The book’s title mentions “Catholic,” and the editor and contributors are, indeed, Catholic (many work at Catholic institutions), but they are at pains to make clear that the book is “not presented or intended to be a ‘Catholic Thing,'” and the reader quickly notes, by the way book proceeds, that Catholicism, because of common developments happening in Europe and America (uncontrolled immigration and political crises, to name a few), as well as the common inheritance on both sides of the Pond, is not a designation of partiality but, true to the word’s etymology, a lens aspiring towards “universality.” That being said, the Holy See as well as Catholic intellectuals and universities do come in for some discussion, mostly in the form of a serious drubbing:

Clearly, the acceleration, such as that characterizing “hyper-modernity,” of a transformative process, which the Church took in stride unsympathetically, could not but aggravate the discomfort. In this protracted state of general malaise, despite her best pastoral efforts, the Church seems to be suffering, more than anything, from a guilt-ridden presentiment of being, in the final analysis, completely insignificant. To begin, she has not been capable in over a century of producing a single influential intellectual, let alone a whole class of maitres a penser, which she would have sorely needed. As a consequence, she has no science worth speaking of, despite Veblen’s solemn evocation of Christendom’s faded glories. Because her so-called Social Doctrine is, at heart, a compendium of homiletic platitudes — a form of “catechism on steroids,” as it were — the Church has not been able to form in her clergy a proper and structured sensitivity to socioeconomic analysis and policy. In ecclesiastical universities, rather than being shepherded into the study of the social sciences, seminarians and priests, and the future diplomats in their midst, are obdurately cut to size, instead, by the grinding motions of a perfectly bootless trivium of philosophy, theology, and canon law. And, even worse than this, unforgivably so, is Catholicism’s decision to subcontract the entire social science offerings of its own denominational schools to the Malthusians of the Liberal academy. And so it is that such colleges, Catholic only in name, presently pride themselves on the ranking of their heavily endowed business schools, where, for the most part, upper-middle- class scions are taught to blend the proprieties of pious decorum with a transcendental awe for the microeconomic principle of scarcity to the joint satisfaction of donors and chaplains.

Paradoxically for a book written in the pacifistic tradition, the tone is unabashedly combative (Thorstein Veblen, no stranger to intellectual combat, seems to be a guiding light for a number of the contributors.), and the order of the contributions do not come across as variations on a theme but, instead, can best be described using a military term: deployment. This book is specifically about political economy, something that Rod Dreher recently stated was, “[o]ne big lacuna in my Benedict Option book,” and the field is ordered as well as covered in full. The contributors to this volume, like Dreher, Patrick Deneen and others, are very aware of the “end of liberalism,” but they also have a vision and a plan for what comes next, and it’s a vision worth engaging, if for nothing else, as an impetus to intelligent and serious discussion.

The first couple of essays do yeoman’s labor by clearing ground, using the subjects of epidemiology and blasphemy laws, in demonstrating that a few foundational misunderstandings of liberalism need to be corrected in order to begin to understand the current state of affairs and build for the future. One takes aim at the metaphysics of “liberal individualism” and “rational choice theory,” respectively, as both being based in an ontological falsehood about human nature (hint: we’re more than self-seeking machines) and, therefore, demonstrably bad in formulating public policy. Failed public health responses to AIDS and obesity are used as examples, convincing ones, to be the microcosm within the macrocosm of social science as a whole. The complimentary essay works terrain that scholars in many disparate fields are exploring by, in this case, using blasphemy laws to question the common worldview that pits the secular, freedom-loving, liberal west against the theocratic, dogmatic civilizations (often Islamic), a worldview that tends to obscure more than it clarifies as plenty of illiberalism, absolutism and dogmatism, it turns out, are found on both sides. 

These early essays make for some slow-going, but there is a refreshing, assured tone to them as the authors are not self-styled culture warriors tying to score points against the “other side,” but seem to presume that they are writing in the wake of the end of certain understandings that have been taken for granted for hundreds of years. There is no cheating reality, however, and it’s becoming more and more apparent that many of our sociological certainties, or what Ivan Illich used to call “misplaced concretes,” as well as the societal structures built upon those false certainties turn out to be nothing more than the crystallizations of lies. “The dogma of individualism,” one of the contributors suggests, “prevents a coherent understanding of the social metabolism, and, therefore, of the particular sort of care needed for its nurture.” Implicit throughout the book is the critique that, astonishingly, this same brand of metaphysics and theory is taught in Christian and Catholic universities! Another contributor wistfully opines that maybe these universities could, at the very least, include in their course-planning an awareness of the admonition of theologian Romano Guardini and teach a social science that might help open students minds to the “ways which the Leviathan acquires power.”

Ensuing contributions continue and expand the critique of liberal individualism and postmodern, “secular” religion into the categories of historiography, politics, culture studies and economics. However, insofar as the respective essays focus on 1) political murder vis-à-vis JFK and others, 2) Neoconservatism’s gaming of Catholics, 3) Rene Girard and scapegoating-as-geopolitics, 4) the damning genealogy of postmodernism, 5) the “Political Scripting of Jesus” which critiques both Liberation Theology AND the Vatican censures of it, 6) a vital telling of 70 years of American economic history, and 8) a short economic blueprint for the future, the book reads more like a page-turner. The editor and contributors, top-notch scholars all, are decidedly un-scholarly in the admirable courtesy they show to the reading public: they write with clarity, and they write on subjects that matter.

Readers of historian John Lukacs know that he is fond of quoting, for contemporary times, Tocqueville’s admonition of 175 years ago that “a new science of politics is necessary for a new world.” As the contributors to this work are straining towards that goal, there’s necessarily some adjustment in our usual political terminology. If we’ve recently seen the growth of “Illiberal Liberalism” on campus and beyond, and have come to understand that Neoconservatism conserves next to nothing, save hypocrisy, while specializing in dissipation in the areas of relationships, communities and human lives spent as fodder in endless wars, we might be less attached to our labels and be open to some conclusions that the contributors, who, again, define themselves as “progressive,” “compassionate” and “pacifistic” make that might jar our traditional political sensibilities. A good statement on this confusion comes from contributor Thaddeus Kozinski:

“The politically correct on the left persecute those they deem the persecutors in the name of the persecuted. The “war-on-terror” terrorists of the right terrorize those they deem the terrorists in the name of the victims of terror, victims by terrorists, such as Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, which they themselves have created.” 

Into this melting pot of crazy, we might all do ourselves a favor and invoke Stendhal who pithily described the Left as “mad, generous and dull, adoring the future” and the Right as “mad, selfish and polite, adoring the past,” and laugh at ourselves and, along with the contributors, get onto the business at hand which is understanding the world we’ve made and how to fix it.

Postmodernism, for example, in the language of these authors, though espoused by the ‘Liberal Intelligensia’ is “conservative” (as well as “religious”, oligarchic and militaristic): “Why this political sci-fi would be championed by the Liberal intelligentsia is not difficult to understand: what more convenient theory to peddle in academia than one representing the vested interest of modern oligarchic systems as faceless, de-centered and loose outfits engaged in an ineluctable, ‘natural’ fight without issue.” The editor, Guido Preparata, in his essay on Postmodernism as the “Science of Discord” traces its genealogy back through Foucault to his French precursor, the writer, poet, pornographer and sociologist George Battaile (1897-1962), and shows that the “idiom” that is now political correctness was concocted by design to be divisive and, therefore, reinforces the status quo by de-fanging the natural tendency for groups to work together for meaningful change. The new cult of transgenderism, too, is “conservative” in this parlance since the unsexing of individuals, as well as the “freedom” to abort and invite unrestricted immigration go quite well with the blueprint of the hive that the authors are trying to help us avoid.

Interestingly, the trendy development strategy called micro-finance, the fix-all and favorite child of current Catholic Charities development initiatives, is one more fetish that comes in for critique as it, “harnesses the six billion have-nots to the proprietary banking grid of the one billion haves by an interface, a local banking outfit, whose ‘alluring’ business proposition was, to put it coarsely, a tenfold reduction of three-figure loan-sharking rates to the more manageable two-figure usury of microcredit– a mitigation; two ounces instead of full pound of flesh.” Now, obviously, lower interest rates for the poor are better than higher interest rates but what if, our scholars suggest, beginning at the local level, (as micro-finance does), the whole interest-seeking aspect of economics can be avoided completely?

This controversial question is the subject of the learned and final contribution. Every essay in the book has suggestions that are deserving of thought, but this final chapter is called ”The Blueprint’ A Modest Monetary and Organizational Proposal for Re-launching the Economic Welfare of Communities” and is fully devoted to suggestions. It draws much more deeply on Catholic social teaching than the “teaching” that often goes by that name and which most of us hear from the pulpits or read in the pages of many Catholic journals. To my ears, at least, that “Catholic social teaching” instead of combating the Seven Deadly Sins seems in fact to take two of them for granted in schemes that amount to little more than “the institutionalization of envy” or the “reorganization of universal greed.” Like the essays on politics, this concluding essay is a peak behind the veil of the end of liberalism. This essay is penned by a group of scholars, and it’s worth the price of the book to listen to these intelligent men think without constraints.

Hypermodernity, as it’s discussed in this work and as we see it manifesting itself around us, sounds a lot like the world predicted in Monsignor Robert Hugh Benson’s 1907 sci-fi novel Lord of the World: “this vast hive of men and women who had learnt at least the primary lesson of the gospel that there was no God but man, no priest but the politician, no prophet but the schoolmaster.” It’s patently not a world fit for humans and it should, therefore, be resisted. Our image of the world should not be inspired by the “United Colors of Benetton” which, under an array of surface colors, lies a bland, adolescent, uniform path leading directly to the hive. Preparata writes, “Ours is not a world of difference, but of flattening conformism, of uniformization; women are not empowered, they rather strive to comport themselves like men, who look more like machines.” On the other hand, and as our authors suggest, neither should we adopt, uncritically, a “Clash of Civilizations” model:  the walls in that world are simply too thick. In place of these problematic images, they suggest the metaphor of the “violent family feud.” In short, we’re different and we are one. That’s reality, and that should be the basis for realpolitik moving forward. Maybe President Trump sees it that way. Let’s hope. Sane people can disagree with some of the observations and conclusions of this book, but a coherent, intelligent analysis and blueprint such as our authors have provided cannot be safely ignored since, to quote Chesterton, “The hive has become larger than the house, the bees are destroying their captors; what the locust hath left, the caterpillar hath eaten; and the little house and garden of our friend Jones is in a bad way.”

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  1. And, so? Where is localism, communalism, and a sense of irony and humility on the part of the authors or their reviewer? Try getting out among real folks living in ‘Murika and see how much the peasants love them some Strumpf hive hype and honey….bigly

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