January 3, 2012
ON REINHOLD NIEBUHR
John Patrick Diggins, Why Niebuhr Now? (Chicago & London: U. of Chicago Press, 2011).
Charles Lemert, Why Niebuhr Matters (New Haven & London: Yale U. Press, 2011) ("The reality of Western history is that the modern West was built, from at least 1500 onward, in the global explorations for new wealth--for, that is, capital wealth able to expand through well-reasoned reinvestment into a continuing stream of surplus values. The ideal of progress has always been subservient to capitalism's reliance on continuous economic growth in a world where values and resources are finite. As a result, in nations like the United States, where the ideology of economic freedoms and actual market forces are the determining spheres of personal worth, ideological and practical politics are always vulnerable to the exceptions required by corporate powers. No less is liberalism, especially in the United States, a weak term precisely because it must serve to create a political exception to the power of the state." "A liberal thus, was and still is, one who is not conservative, where conservatives are taken to be those more than willing to use power (whatever that might be) to conserve their version of the truth, when their truths are nearly always the truths that redound to those who hold their privileges by tradition. Liberalism thereby stakes out the rights of the individual against those of the powerful, of which the state is the pure type and the free market the fantasy playground. 'When economic power desires to be left alone,' Niebuhr said of the lure of liberal individualism, 'it uses the philosophy of laissez faire to discourage political restrain upon economic freedom.' Liberal individualism is the hoax that covers the reality of state interests that are bound tight to corporate greed. Liberalism is always implicated in the devious effects of power." Id. at 51-52. ""Lincoln, Niebuhr, and King, all three, and many others, sought justice; and all three understood that justice rolls down like water and that waters do necessary violence to the pastoral landscape." " The very thought is hard to take because it requires accepting the harsh realities that our ideals and values are not what we had hoped they would be. Love, such as it is, does not lead to justice. We cannot live together without justice that includes all with whom we might join to form a communal society based on fairness that requires sacrifice. This is the problem Niebuhr addressed. Collective action toward justice is not a native-born gift. Human nature desires neither community nor justice. When we arrive collectively at any degree of justice we arrive exhausted by the journey and bruised by the conflict." Id. at 98. Reinhold Niebuhr does matter, and matters very much now.).