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Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Providential Enlightenment

Providential Enlightenment
Christopher Britt

            With the demolition of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the eventual dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, the nihilistic logic of mutually assured destruction that had dominated the Cold War rapidly gave way to more hopeful views of the future.  In the West generally, but particularly in the United States of America, such optimism was cast in a triumphant light.  Francis Fukuyama gave this victorious vision its definitive form when, in 1992, he interpreted the end of the Cold War as the end of History itself.  As he visualized it, in this “post-historical” era there would not be too much for us “last men” to do, except attend to the administration of global empire and enjoy the resulting prosperity and ever-lasting peace.[1]
We are enjoying this peace today: a global war on terror that has no end in sight; an ever-expanding global market economy whose frenetic use of energy is fast pushing the world to the brink of ecological collapse; and everywhere the signs of social and political disintegration associated with a so-called state of exception that has now become the new norm in governance, not just among despotic regimes, but also, and more importantly, among democracies the world over.[2]  Actually, as a result of this continuing global violence, there are now more refugees, asylum seekers, and internally displaced people in the world than at any time since the end of the Second World War.[3]  We are not living in a post-historical era of perpetual peace, but in an age of mounting global war and destruction.

Critical analysis of America’s legacy of enlightenment reveals that the Enlightenment in America has always and already contained the seeds, not only of the republican virtues that have sustained American democracy over the centuries, but also of the imperial vices that have persistently and repeatedly weakened that democracy.  Not unlike the modern democratic virtues it undercuts, this imperial vice is British in origin.  It finds its first philosophical formulation in Francis Bacon’s identification of inductive reasoning as a new organ or method for thought, which alone would liberate men from ignorance and reveal to them the laws by means of which they could rise above and govern nature.  In John Locke’s political theory, enlightenment is also identified with self-mastery: a mastery of the self that extends, by reason of industry and labor, over the “virgin lands” and “uncivilized people” such labor allegedly improves.  Enlightenment, according to these original formulations, is a liberating mastery that frees enlightened men from ignorance while enabling them to dominate both nature and men.  Significantly, for both Bacon and Locke, this enlightened imperium was also a matter of providence and of the Biblical injunction to improve nature.
When, in 1776, the British colonists in North America declared their independence from the British monarchy, they believed that their society was the truest embodiment of this providential notion of enlightenment.  And when, in 1789, the Founding Fathers ratified the Constitution of the United States of America, they envisioned the United States as a mythical “City on the Hill” and a beacon of light in the vast darkness of natural history.  In 1803, when Thomas Jefferson signed the Louisiana Purchase, he did so believing that his country would thereby realize its purpose as an “empire of liberty” destined to spread the emancipating light of reason across the entire globe.  From Franklin to Jefferson and from Washington to Hamilton, the Founding Fathers embraced the providentialist logic implicit in the imperialist notion that enlightenment is a liberating state of mastery.  In 1823, John Quincy Adams, who firmly believed that the United States had been designated by God as the redeemer nation, declared, by means of the Monroe Doctrine, that America’s empire of liberty naturally included all of the Americas.[4] 
Throughout the rest of the nineteenth century, the conviction that America had a “manifest destiny” to fulfill led the government of the United States to annex ever-greater expanses of land, whether by means of purchase (as was the case with Oregon and Alaska) or by outright conquest (as was the case with Florida, northern Mexico, Puerto Rico, Hawaii, and the Philippines).  While these conquests surely expressed America’s enlightened legacy of empire, they nevertheless called into question America’s commitment to the enlightened republican and democratic ideals expressed in the Declaration of Independence. Indeed, by 1900, the majority of Americans had become so enamored of the idea that America had been chosen by Providence to civilize the world for Christianity, for democracy, and for capitalism that, in the Presidential election of that year, they openly voted against the republic in favor of empire.[5]
At the start of the twentieth century Presidents McKinley and Roosevelt committed America to a foreign policy that would advance American global imperial expansion at the expense of democracy both at home and abroad.  The pretense, however, was that U.S. imperialism in the twentieth century favored democratic self-determination.  This idea was closely tied to the notion that American imperialism was historically unique: it was an anti-imperial imperialism, which sought to spread everywhere the so-called blessings of American civilization. In the years leading up to World War II, Henry Luce summed up this idea when he urged Americans: “to seek and to bring forth a vision of America as a world power … as the Good Samaritan … as the powerhouse of the ideals of Freedom and Justice” and to fashion a vision of the Twentieth Century as “the first great American Century.”[6]  Conceived in this progressive manner, the American Century would introduce to the world a new kind of anti-imperial imperialism, a new kind of American imperialism that would allegedly use its power only in order to serve and advance the interests of humanity.  We need only recall the horrors of U.S. weapons sales and the wars in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan to understand the profoundly nihilistic and destructive nature of the so-called human interests that this would-be enlightened imperialism advances and serves.

Today, more than one hundred years after the presidential election of 1900, we are living through the consequences of that fateful betrayal of democracy in favor of empire.  Indeed, America’s legacy of enlightenment has become so thoroughly confused with the providentialist view of America’s imperial manifest destiny that it is almost impossible to tell the two apart.  Consider, for instance, how in response to the terrorist attacks of 9/11 the U.S. government created an intelligence-gathering program intended to achieve “total information awareness.”[7]  Housed in the Information Awareness Office of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency or DARPA, this program essentially involved the development and implementation of a surveillance apparatus capable of policing the electronic communications of the entire world.  The idea was to ensure that terrorists would never again surprise the United States.  Conspicuously, this program developed a logo for itself that purposely confused America’s providential destiny as a world empire with the revolutionary rhetoric of the Enlightenment.  DARPA’s logo usurped the meaning behind one of the Enlightenment’s central metaphors --that the light of reason frees us from ignorance-- and turned its emancipating logic on its head.  Rather than represent freedom from ignorance, fear, and arbitrary external controls, the radiant light of enlightenment was here made to represent the freedom to control totally and on a global scale.
The eye of providence, which figures so prominently in this logo, is of course also a key component of the Seal of the United States.  But in the Seal, this all-seeing eye is not related to the imperialist ideal of total global domination.  It rather expresses the enlightened assertion that when men exercise their reasoning power, they become capable of comprehending the order of the universe and of governing themselves according to the laws of nature. Thus, the harmonious unity symbolized by the Seal of the United States is altogether different from the one depicted in the DARPA logo.  It is not the providential unity of technology, capitalism, and imperialism, but rather the ethical unity of mind, community, and the cosmos: a unity to which Emerson would give a transcendentalist expression in his philosophical essays on nature.
This ideal of a rational, harmonious, and cosmic unity has taken on a devastating irony.  In place of universal reason, we now have the epistemological divisions of expert forms of knowledge and the moral limitations of the bureaucratic mind; in place of a rational community of compassionate human solidarity, the divisions and conflicts of unbridled global capitalism; and in place of a harmonious relationship to nature, the technological, industrial, and imperial domination of both nature and mankind.  Such is the crisis of our so-called post-historical age: the enlightening power of reason, rather than set our minds in proper and harmonious relation to our communities and to nature, has splintered our minds, fragmented our communities, and alienated us from nature.
And yet, in spite of all its evident failures and its destructive nihilism, enlightenment remains for us today the only viable source of creative power by means of which we may yet aspire to construct an ethical unity of mind, community, and nature.  This is so, not in the sense of a providential and imperial enlightenment, but rather in terms of the enlightened secular, democratic, and communitarian ideals proposed by Thomas Paine at the start of the American Revolution.  Of course, Paine’s opposition to empire, monarchy and religion, his insistence on popular democracy, universal suffrage, the abolition of slavery, and free public education, led most of the other Founding Fathers to regard him as a dangerous radical, a demagogue, and promoter of an all-too-genuine form of democracy.[8]  Recalling these enlightened democratic ideals today, we denounce the jingoistic nationalism and providentialist imperialism that stand in the way of our aspirations for a better future.

[1] Francis Fukuyama, The End of History and the Last Man. New York: The Free Press, 1992.
[2] Giorgio Agamben, State of Exception. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005.
[3] UNHCR Global Trends Report, 2013.
[4] William Earl Weeks, John Quincy Adams and American Global Empire Lexington, Kentucky: University of Kentucky Press, 1992. p.17.
[5] The Democratic Party Platform was organized almost entirely around an anti-imperialist stance: “We declare … that all governments instituted among men derive their just powers from the consent of the governed; that any government not based upon the consent of the governed is tyranny; and that to impose upon any people a government of force is to substitute methods of imperialism for those of a republic.”  The platform goes even further in its opposition to U.S. imperialism by asserting: “no nation can long endure half republic and half empire, and we warn the American people that imperialism abroad will lead quickly and inevitably to despotism at home.”  To back this final point, the platform describes U.S. tyranny in Puerto Rico, Cuba, and the Philippines and concludes with the specter of militarism, which “means conquest abroad and intimidation and oppression at home”. “Democratic Party Platform of 1900”, July 4, 1900. Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project.  Http://
[6] Niall Ferguson, Colossus: The Rise and Fall of the American Empire, New York, Penguin, 2004, p.65-66.
[8] Paul Atwood.  War and Empire: The American Way of Life.  New York: Pluto Press, 2010, p.53.