a meditation on Psalm 58
Background. The “gods” referred to here are an imagined “heavenly court” — minor divinities believed to be subordinate to Yahweh. They are called in other places “the sons of God.” These divinities were also assigned other tribes to protect and promote. The poet rebukes them, surely, because they have not brought their wards into subservience to Yahweh; they have allowed them to perpetrate injustice and violence on others which probably included Israel. The psalmist is furious over this, as the extreme violence of his language reveals.
Rational thought is the realm of the gods. And for humans, what you consider good and worthy of your disciplined service is inspired by the “god” you worship. So the “gods” are judged guilty of planning evil because the actions of their people are evil and must stem from the evil thinking or at least the conscious permissiveness of their “god.” The “stinking thinking” of course, is that you are superior to others and have a right to lord it over them.
The Psalmist calls on Yahweh to confirm his supremacy by a visible display in reverse order: the oppressor nation will be defeated and its arrogant thoughts of superiority conspicuously humiliated thus proving that its “god” has been reined in and his “thinking” made once again subservient to Yahweh’s plan. Faith in Yahweh and his thought-path — the torah and the ascendancy of Yahweh’s people — will be restored.
In Israel’s history, this interpretation of international politics sometimes played itself out with savage consistency by all nations to the point of wholesale population relocation or even national extermination, the latter strategy pursued by the Hebrews themselves in their conquest of Palestine. The “target” of the extermination was putatively not the people but the “god” whose thought-path was their life.
Reflection. The theological cosmogony imagined in this poem is utterly foreign to us. We have little choice but to resort to metaphor. It is axiomatic for us that Yahweh is an ancient metaphor for LIFE, and in all cases we want LIFE as dharma — the rational thought-path of self-control, egalitarian justice, compassion and generosity — to assert its supremacy above all other competing ideologies. LIFE is not tribal, as Yahweh was. It is universal, as is its dharma, its torah, its thought-path. It applies to all. Everyone knows what it is.
This supremacy impacts politics as much as individual spiritual liberation. Truncated ideological distortions that would make “gods” out of something less than LIFE — the individual “self,” the race or nation, the educated elite, the dominant gender, or the wealthy, powerful and merciless bosses in every sector who function on the illusion that they are owners of others — must all be defeated and those various conceptual surrogates made subservient to LIFE. They are all functions of the isolated ego. For it is my self I promote, my nation, my ideology, my status, career, credentials, and credibility that drive and justify the violence I heap on others. These are all rogue “gods,” and in order to conquer the promised land (fully appropriate our humanity), they must be made to submit to LIFE, applying whatever violence it requires, and the attraction of their thought-path exterminated. This is where spirituality and politics intersect; it is what makes monasticism and revolution different applications of the same insight and vision.
1 Do you indeed decree what is right, you gods? Do you judge people fairly?
2 No, in your hearts you devise wrongs; your hands deal out violence on earth.
3 The wicked go astray from the womb; they err from their birth, speaking lies.
4 They have venom like the venom of a serpent, like the deaf adder that stops its ear,
5 so that it does not hear the voice of charmers or of the cunning enchanter.
6 O God, break the teeth in their mouths; tear out the fangs of the young lions, O LORD!
7 Let them vanish like water that runs away; like grass let them be trodden down and wither.
8 Let them be like the snail that dissolves into slime; like the untimely birth that never sees the sun.
9 Faster than a brush-fire flashes through thistles, may he sweep them away!
In the most trenchant and uncompromising terms, anything that would dare assert itself above LIFE as the goal and purpose of our human existence as a community of life-sharing individuals, must be neutralized — aborted, exterminated — and swept away. They are our sworn enemies. To value anything above LIFE is to invite disaster.
10 The righteous will rejoice when they see vengeance done; they will bathe their feet in the blood of the wicked.
11 People will say, “Surely there is a reward for the righteous; surely there is a God who judges on earth.”
Fifty years ago, in the decade of the ‘70’s, the idea of “revolution” was part of everyday conversation, and many seriously pursued it as a real possibility. That is not true today; people claim it is just not possible. What is called “revolution” today are actually proposals for reform: changes for the better that do not contemplate a change of system.
Even in those days what “revolution” meant was not always clear. It varied among the political theories and nascent parties that espoused a change of system. That variety didn’t only stem from debate about what the replacement was supposed to look like, it was originally and more maddeningly due to disagreement about what exactly it was about the system that was the root source of the injustice.
For me, there is no debate. I want to make my position clear on this point from the start. I contend that the bedrock human value that is deformed is the dignity and autonomy of the human individual, ground up and blown away by the forces of social, political or economic organization. The prospects for revolution may not currently augur well, but revolution is as salient today as ever. It is not the power to vote, or parity in remuneration, or access to goods and services, or public recognition and commendation, or proportionate representation, even though these secondary indices correlate with the primary problem. It is the requirement that, as the condition of becoming a fully franchised member of society, the individual must abdicate his/her individual dignity and autonomy to such a degree that he can be said to be — and behaves as if he were — owned by someone else. The most common form of this in our society, sustained by economic necessity, is aptly called “wage slavery,” [cf my blogpost for Aug 27, 2017] though the grosser forms of slavery that are sustained by physical and/or emotional violence, including extreme spousal and child domination and exploitation, also abound.
From this perspective, the problem I have with the Capitalist system is not primarily that it is capitalist, but that it is master/slave. The “capitalist” designation is secondary and injects injustice indirectly through its fictional claim to ownership of the means of production. Capitalism refers to the ownership of stuff: land, buildings, machinery… and the money that allows you to obtain them. Master/slave, on the other hand refers to the ownership of people, either directly as chattel, or indirectly through the ownership of their labor. I contend the “original injustice” is right there. You cannot own someone’s labor any more than you can own his/her person. It is a metaphysical contradiction. Work in community is the human organism’s necessary interaction with its environment for the purposes of survival — an absolute requirement for all biological organisms in a material universe. Labor can only be communally shared; it cannot be sold because it cannot be owned by anyone else. It is when capitalists claim to also buy and own the labor of those who work on their farms and factories that the fiction of ownership makes them complicit in the injustice.
At the foundation of the injustice — the justification for the master/slave relationship — lies a faulty view of human nature. It is a view built on the discarded belief that the human individual is made of two metaphysically distinct components, body and soul, comprised respectively of two distinct kinds of “stuff,” matter and spirit. On that basis it was believed that the “soul” was an entity distinct from the body; superior to it because it was living thinking spirit and body was only dumb lifeless matter; the soul was master and the body was supposed to be its slave. All the problems in human society, it was claimed, stemmed from the disastrous reversal of that “natural” stratification: the body, somehow, through some original mishap, had come to throw off the domination by the soul and in many cases usurped its role and ruled the person. This “unnatural” situation could only be rectified by the soul reconquering the body by discipline and obedience to disciplined superiors who imposed “spiritual” norms, re-establishing the reign of spirit over matter. The Christianized Roman Empire, whose economy was based on slave labor, was considered the authority that imposed those norms.
Because it was believed that the “soul” was really the person, the body and its needs requiring labor and struggle was deemed something of an inferior alien “thing” that, like a wild animal could be trained and exploited, used and abused, bought and sold. The slavery that was the foundation of the economic life of the ancient Roman Empire, from which our modern Western civilization emerged, was considered the direct and accurate reflection of the dual nature of man. All bodies are the slaves of spirit, if not your own, then someone else’s.
The supposed dominance of spirit over matter also established the superiority of mental activity over physical labor and the corresponding right of those who lived by mental activity — the educated elite — to direct and control the lives of those who lived by the sweat of their brow and the labor of their body. This also provided a justification for the subordination of women to men, a phenomenon already well established by male physical dominance and the soft nurturing character of the female organism shaped by evolution to care for and share life with children. Even among wealthy landowners, boys were educated girls were not. Thus it came to be believed that the male head of family owned and managed his wife and children, the way one would own tools or furniture and do with them whatever he wanted. The incorporation into the family of servants and slaves, conquered by war and bought for a price, was considered a simple extenuation of the ownership which the paterfamilias exercised over his household — land and animals, buildings and wagons, tools and people: women, children, slaves.
Wage slavery in turn is the continuation in modern form of those beliefs inherited from ancient times about the nature of the human being. The belief that society is naturally and necessarily comprised of intelligent thinking educated owners who direct the work of the thoughtless sub-human illiterate inferiors whose labor they own, incapable of surviving without the master’s control and direction, is more than a caricature. There is no democracy on the job. The owner is an absolute dictator whom the worker is bound to obey because he owns his labor.
In all forms of master/slave the value of human labor was not determined by the integral connection between the human material organism in community interacting with its cosmic material environment. It was determined by the profit it brought to the owner’s person, the “soul,” one’s own or the buyer’s. The result was that the vitality and guiding authority of that material cosmic symbiosis atrophied. The reality of (and respect for) the material organism integrated in its human community and nested in its material environment disappeared. The “soul” always remained “free” in theory but the body could be sold into slavery, permanently or for a time, to do whatever bidding was required of it. The social system obliterated individual autonomy and its authentic relationship to its matrix as the condition for its inclusion in the community of survival. The body had no say, for its needs were material and disdained as worthless.
I contend that the master/slave system in all its forms is dehumanizing. It supposes and in turn supports a false notion of human nature and militates against the integrity of the human organism dependent on the human community. “Revolution” is a political symbol that proposes the complete elimination of the master/slave system. Changes in other categories of social role, status and distribution of goods will come in its train, and as determined by the nature of the egalitarian society resulting from revolution.
A truly revolutionary program may not be possible at the present time because the political conditions are not propitious, but despite that fact, plans for the radical change of economic/social system have to continue to be hammered out and proposed to the world. And these plans cannot be allowed to be watered down to the point where they become acceptable to the current Capitalist version of the master/slave system. Why? Because the system is dehumanizing. And it’s precisely for that reason that revolutionary visions, despite their “impossibility,” stand in a class apart from those that offer reform. Preserving intact the revolutionary intent of these alternatives is one of the few ways we have of holding aloft a vision of the integrity of the humanity that we are privileged to bear and pass on. We are meant to become fully human as individuals in a human community that respects and protects our fragile and vulnerable humanity. That means that slavery in all its forms is banished from human life. That is not an optional choice, and it is not possible under Capitalism’s version of the master/slave, two-class, two-substance theory of human nature. Wage slavery is slavery.
In my opinion the furthest we’ve gotten along these lines are reforms: proposals for changes conceived to function within a system that will harness them to its own dehumanizing agenda or it will neutralize them. Reform is not revolution. In order to effectuate such reforms you have to emasculate revolution and turn it into a non-threatening modification of traditional Capitalism. That leaves our dehumanizing master/slave paradigm in place and festering. Reform will work within things as they are. Please note: the beneficiaries of the system – wealthy, white, male, educated people — support reform efforts. And the reason why, I suggest, is because whatever the benefits reform might achieve for others, it does not threaten their privilege.
I admit that reform is better than what we have now. But reform does not address the threat to our humanity. Revolution — the annihilation of the master/slave relationship — does. Without it nothing changes except that the slaves are given a stake in the system (possibly to perpetuate it) and some may get to consume more. The multimillennial dehumanization created by the master/slave system will continue on until it finally produces a humankind totally disfigured by selfish uncontrolled consumption, a massive social inequality and widespread destitution created in its pursuit, and the resulting destruction of Earth’s ability to support life. The system will not tolerate anything that contradicts its two-class, master/slave view of human nature that has made “gods” and masters of the elite who control it. It will precipitate Armageddon before it would ever embrace Revolution.