The Four Fundamentalisms
Threats to Sustainable Democracy
By ROBERT JENSEN
The most important words anyone
said to me in the weeks immediately after September 11, 2001, came from my
friend James Koplin. While acknowledging the significance of that day, he said,
simply: "I was in a profound state of grief about the world before 9/11, and
nothing that happened on that day has significantly changed what the world looks
like to me."
Because Jim is a bit older and considerably smarter than I, it took me some time
to catch up to him, but eventually I recognized his insight. He was warning me
that even we lefties -- trained to keep an eye on systems and structures of
power rather than obsessing about individual politicians and single events --
were missing the point if we accepted the conventional wisdom that 9/11 "changed
everything," as the saying went then. He was right, and today I want to talk
about four fundamentalisms loose in the world and the long-term crisis to which
Before we head there, a note on the short-term crisis: I have been involved in
U.S. organizing against the so-called "war on terror," which has provided cover
for the attempts to expand and deepen U.S. control over the strategically
crucial resources of Central Asia and the Middle East, part of a global strategy
that the Bush administration openly acknowledges is aimed at unchallengeable U.S
domination of the world. For U.S. planners, that "world" includes not only the
land and seas -- and, of course, the resources beneath them -- but space above
as well. It is our world to arrange and dispose of as they see fit, in support
of our "blessed lifestyle." Other nations can have a place in that world as long
as they are willing to assume the role that the United States determines
appropriate. The vision of U.S. policymakers is of a world very ordered, by
This description of U.S. policy is no caricature. Anyone who doubts my summary
can simply read the
National Security Strategy document released in 2002 and the
2006 update and review
post-World War II U.S. history. Read and review, but only if you don't mind
waking up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat of fear. But as scary as
these paranoid, power-mad policymakers' delusions may be, Jim was talking about
a feeling beyond that fear -- a grief that is much broader and goes much deeper.
Opposing the war-of-the-moment -- and going beyond that to challenge the whole
imperial project -- is important. But also important is the work of thinking
through the nature of the larger forces that leave us in this grief-stricken
position. We need to go beyond Bush. We should recognize the seriousness of the
threat that this particular gang of thieves and thugs poses and resist their
policies, but not mistake them for the core of the problem.
One way to come to terms with these forces is to understand the United States as
a society in the grip of four fundamentalisms. In ascending order of threat, I
identify these fundamentalisms as religious, national, economic, and
technological. All share some similar characteristics, while each poses a
particular threat to sustainable democracy and sustainable life on the planet.
Each needs separate analysis and strategies for resistance.
Let's start by defining fundamentalism. The term has a specific meaning in
Protestant history (an early 20th century movement to promote "The
Fundamentals"), but I want to use it in a more general fashion to describe any
intellectual/political/theological position that asserts an absolute certainty
in the truth and/or righteousness of a belief system. Such fundamentalism leads
to an inclination to want to marginalize, or in some cases eliminate,
alternative ways to understand and organize the world. After all, what's the
point of engaging in honest dialogue with those who believe in heretical systems
that are so clearly wrong or even evil? In this sense, fundamentalism is an
extreme form of hubris, a delusional overconfidence not only in one's beliefs
but in the ability of humans to know much of anything definitively. In the way I
use the term, fundamentalism isn't unique to religious people but is instead a
feature of a certain approach to the world, rooted in the mistaking of very
limited knowledge for wisdom.
The antidote to fundamentalism is humility, that recognition of just how
contingent our knowledge about the world is. We need to adopt what sustainable
agriculture researcher Wes Jackson calls "an
ignorance-based worldview," an approach to world that acknowledges that what
we don't know dwarfs what we do know about a complex world. Acknowledging our
basic ignorance does not mean we should revel in stupidity, but rather should
spur us to recognize that we have an obligation to act intelligently on the
basis not only of what we know but what we don't know. When properly understood,
I think such humility is implicit in traditional/indigenous systems and also
şthe key lesson to be taken from the Enlightenment and modern science (a
contentious claim, perhaps, given the way in which modern science tends to
overreach). The Enlightenment insight, however, is not that human reason can
know everything, but that we can give up attempts to know everything and be
satisfied with knowing what we can know. That is, we can be content in making it
up as we go along, cautiously. One of the tragedies of the modern world is that
too few have learned that lesson.
Fundamentalists, no matter what the specific belief system, believe in their
ability to know a lot. That is why it can be so easy for fundamentalists to move
from one totalizing belief system to another. For example, I have a faculty
colleague who shifted from being a dogmatic communist to a dogmatic right-wing
evangelical Christian. When people hear of his conversion they often express
amazement, though to me it always seemed easy to understand -- he went from one
fundamentalism to another. What matters is not so much the content but the shape
of the belief system. Such systems should worry us.
That said, not all fundamentalisms pose the same danger to democracy and
sustainability. So, let's go through the four I have identified: religious,
national, economic, and technological.
RELIGION AND NATION
The fundamentalism that attracts the most attention is religious. In the United
States, the predominant form is Christian. Elsewhere in the world, Islamic,
Jewish, and Hindu fundamentalisms are attractive to some significant portion of
populations, either spread across a diaspora or concentrated in one region, or
both. Given all the attention focused on religious fundamentalism, I'll assume
everyone has at least a passing acquaintance with the phenomenon and is aware of
But religious fundamentalism is not necessarily the most serious fundamentalist
threat loose in the world today. Certainly much evil has been done in the world
in the name of religion, especially the fundamentalist varieties, and we can
expect more in the future. But, moving up the list, we also can see clearly the
problems posed by national fundamentalism.
Nationalism poses a threat everywhere but should especially concern us in the
United States, where the capacity for destruction in the hands of the most
powerful state in the history of the world is exacerbated by a pathological
hyper-patriotism that tends to suppress internal criticism and leave many unable
to hear critique from outside. In other writing (Chapter 3 of
Citizens of the Empire) I have outlined in some detail an argument that
patriotism is intellectually and morally bankrupt. Here, let me simply point out
that because a nation-state is an abstraction (lines on a map, not a naturally
occurring object), assertions of patriotism (defined as love of or loyalty to a
nation-state) raise a simple question: To what we are pledging our love and
loyalty? How is that abstraction made real? I conclude that all the possible
answers are indefensible and that instead of pledging allegiance to a nation, we
should acknowledge and celebrate our connections to real people in our lives
while also declaring a commitment to universal principles, but reject offering
commitment to arbitrary political units that in the modern era have been the
vehicle for such barbarism and brutality.
That critique applies across the board, but because of our power and peculiar
history, a rejection of national fundamentalism is most crucial in the United
States. The dominant conception of that history is captured in the phrase "the
city upon a hill," the notion that the United States came into the world as the
first democracy, a beacon to the world. In addition to setting the example, as
soon as it had the capacity to project its power around the world, the United
States claimed to be the vehicle for bringing democracy to that world. These are
particularly odd claims for a nation that owes its very existence to one of the
most successful genocides in recorded history, the near-complete extermination
of indigenous peoples to secure the land and resource base for the United
States. Odder still when one looks at the U.S. practice of African slavery that
propelled the United States into the industrial world, and considers the
enduring apartheid system -- once formal and now informal -- that arose from it.
And odd-to-the-point-of-bizarre in the context of imperial America's behavior in
the world since it emerged as the lone superpower and made central to its
foreign policy in the post-WWII era attacks on any challenge in the Third World
to U.S. dominance.
While all the empires that have committed great crimes -- the British, French,
Belgians, Japanese, Russians and then the Soviets -- have justified their
exploitation of others by the alleged benefits it brought to the people being
exploited, there is no power so convinced of its own benevolence as the United
States. The culture is delusional in its commitment to this mythology, which is
why today one can find on the other side of the world peasant farmers with no
formal education who understand better the nature of U.S. power than many
faculty members at elite U.S. universities. This national fundamentalism rooted
in the assumption of the benevolence of U.S. foreign and military policy works
to trump critical inquiry. As long as a significant component of the U.S. public
-- and virtually the entire elite -- accept this national fundamentalism, the
world is at risk.
Economic fundamentalism, synonymous these days with market fundamentalism,
presents another grave threat. After the fall of the Soviet system, the
naturalness of capitalism is now taken to be beyond question. The dominant
assumption about corporate capitalism in the United States is not simply that it
is the best among competing economic systems, but that it is the only sane and
rational way to organize an economy in the contemporary world.
In capitalism, (1) property, including capital assets, is owned and controlled
by private persons; (2) people sell their labor for money wages, and (3) goods
and services are allocated by markets. In contemporary market fundamentalism,
also referred to as neo-liberalism, it's assumed that most extensive use of
markets possible will unleash maximal competition, resulting in the greatest
good -- and all this is inherently just, no matter what the results. The
reigning ideology of so-called "free trade" seeks to impose this neo-liberalism
everywhere on the globe. In this fundamentalism, it is an article of faith that
the "invisible hand" of the market always provides the preferred result, no
matter how awful the consequences may be for real people.
A corresponding tenet of the market fundamentalist view is that the government
should not interfere in any of this; the appropriate role of government, we are
told, is to stay out of the economy. This is probably the most ridiculous aspect
of the ideology, for the obvious reason that it is the government that
establishes the rules for the system (currency, contract law, etc.) and decides
whether the wealth accumulated under previous sets of rules should be allowed to
remain in the hands of those who accumulated it (typically in ways immoral,
illegal, or both; we should recall the quip that behind every great fortune is a
great crime) or be redistributed. To argue that government should stay out of
the economy merely obscures the obvious fact that without the government -- that
is, without rules established through some kind of collective action -- there
would be no economy. The government can't stay out because it's in from the
ground floor, and assertions that government intervention into markets is
inherently illegitimate are just silly.
Adding to the absurdity of all this is the hypocrisy of the market
fundamentalists, who are quick to call on government to bail them out when
things go sour (in recent U.S history, the savings-and-loan and auto industries
are the most outrageous examples). And then there's the reality of how some
government programs -- most notably the military and space departments -- act as
conduits for the transfer of public money to private corporations under the
guise of "national defense" and the "exploration of space." And then there's the
problem of market failure -- the inability of private markets to provide some
goods or provide other goods at the most desirable levels -- of which economists
are well aware.
In other words, economic fundamentalism -- the worship of markets combined with
steadfast denial about how the system actually operates -- leads to a world in
which not only are facts irrelevant to the debate, but people learn to ignore
their own experience.
On the facts: There is a widening gap between rich and poor, both worldwide and
within most nations. According to U.N. statistics, about a quarter of the
world's population lives on less than $1 a day and nearly half live on less than
$2. The 2005 U.N. Report on the World Social Situation, aptly titled "The
Inequality Predicament," stresses:
"Ignoring inequality in the pursuit
of development is perilous. Focusing exclusively on economic growth and income
generation as a development strategy is ineffective, as it leads to the
accumulation of wealth by a few and deepens the poverty of many; such an
approach does not acknowledge the intergenerational transmission of poverty."
That's where the data lead. But I
want to highlight the power of this fundamentalism by reminding us of a common
acronym: TGIF. Everyone in the United States knows what that means: "Thank God
it's Friday." The majority of Americans don't just know what TGIF stands for,
they feel it in their bones. That's a way of saying that a majority of Americans
do work they generally do not like and do not believe is really worth doing.
That's a way of saying that we have an economy in which most people spend at
least a third of their lives doing things they don't want to do and don't
believe are valuable. We are told this is a way of organizing an economy that is
Religious, national, and economic fundamentalisms are dangerous. They are
systems of thought -- or, more accurately, systems of non-thought; as Wes
Jackson puts it, "fundamentalism
takes over where thought leaves off" -- that are at the core of much of the
organized violence in the world today. They are systems that are deployed to
constrain real freedom and justify illegitimate authority. But it may turn out
that those fundamentalisms are child's play compared with U.S. society's
Most concisely defined, technological fundamentalism is the assumption that the
increasing use of increasingly more sophisticated high-energy, advanced
technology is always a good thing and that any problems caused by the unintended
consequences of such technology eventually can be remedied by more technology.
Those who question such declarations are often said to be "anti-technology,"
which is a meaningless insult. All human beings use technology of some kind,
whether it's stone tools or computers. An anti-fundamentalist position is not
that all technology is bad, but that the introduction of new technology should
be evaluated on the basis of its effects -- predictable and unpredictable -- on
human communities and the non-human world, with an understanding of the limits
of our knowledge.
Our experience with unintended consequences is fairly clear. For example,
there's the case of automobiles and the burning of petroleum in
internal-combustion engines, which gave us the interstate highway system and
contributes to global warming. We haven't quite figured out how to cope with
these problems, and in retrospect it might have been wise to go slower in the
development of a transportation system based on the car and think through the
Or how about CFCs and the ozone hole? Chlorofluorocarbons have a variety of
industrial, commercial, and household applications, including in air
conditioning. They were thought to be a miracle chemical when introduced in the
1930s -- non-toxic, non-flammable, and non-reactive with other chemical
compounds. But in the 1980s, researchers began to understand that while CFCs are
stable in the troposphere, when they move to the stratosphere and are broken
down by strong ultraviolet light they release chlorine atoms that deplete the
ozone layer. This unintended effect deflated the exuberance a bit. Depletion of
the ozone layer means that more UV radiation reaches the Earth's surface, and
overexposure to UV radiation is a cause of skin cancer, cataracts, and immune
But, the technological fundamentalists might argue, we got a handle on that one
and banned CFCs, and now the ozone hole is closing. True enough, but what
lessons have been learned? Society didn't react to the news about CFCs by
thinking about ways to step back from a world that has become dependent on air
conditioning, but instead looked for replacements to keep the air conditioning
running. So, the reasonable question is: When will the unintended effects of the
CFC replacements become visible? If not the ozone hole, what's next? There's no
way to predict, but it seems reasonable to ask the question and sensible to
assume the worst.
This technological fundamentalism makes it clear why Jackson's call for an
ignorance-based worldview is so important. If we were to step back and confront
honestly the technologies we have unleashed -- out of that hubris, believing our
knowledge is adequate to control the consequences of our science and technology
-- I doubt any of us would ever get a good night's sleep. We humans have been
overdriving our intellectual headlights for some time, most dramatically in the
second half of the 20th century. Most obviously, there are two places we have
gone, with reckless abandon, where we had no business going -- into the atom and
into the cell.
On the former: The deeper we break into the energy package, the greater the
risks we take. Building fires with sticks gathered from around the camp is
relatively easy to manage, but breaking into increasingly earlier material of
the universe -- such as fossil fuels and, eventually, heavy metal uranium -- is
quite a different project, more complex and far beyond our capacity to control.
Likewise, manipulating plants through selective breeding is local and
manageable, whereas breaking into the workings of the gene -- the foundational
material of life -- takes us to places we have no way to understand.
We live now in the uncomfortable position of realizing we have moved too far and
too fast, outstripping our capacity to manage safely the world we have created.
The answer is not some na´ve return to a romanticized past, but a recognition of
what we have created and a systematic evaluation of how to step back from our
most dangerous missteps.
REDEFINING A GOOD LIFE
Central to that project is realizing that we have to learn to live with less,
which we can accomplish only when we recognize that living with less is crucial
not only to ecological survival but long-term human fulfillment. People in the
United States live with an abundance of most everything -- except meaning. The
people who have the most in material terms seem to spend the most time in
therapy, searching for answers to their own alienation. This "blessed lifestyle"
-- a term Bush's spokesman used in 2000 to describe the president's view of U.S.
affluence -- perhaps is more accurately also seen as a curse.
Let's return to CFCs and air-conditioning. To someone who lives in Texas, with
its miserable heat half the year, it's reasonable to ask: If not
air-conditioning, then what? One possible reasonable response is, of course, to
vacate Texas, a strategy I ponder often. More realistic: The "cracker house," a
term from Florida and Georgia to describe houses built before air-conditioning
that utilize shade, cross-ventilation, and various building techniques to create
a livable space even in the summer in the deep South. Of course, even with all
that, there are times when it's hot in a cracker house -- so hot that one
doesn't want to do much of anything but drink iced tea and sit on the porch.
That raises a question: What's so bad about sitting on the porch drinking iced
tea instead of sitting inside in an air-conditioned house?
A world that steps back from high-energy/high-technology answers to all
questions will no doubt be a harder world in some ways. But the way people cope
without such "solutions" can help create and solidify human bonds. In this
sense, the high-energy/high-technology world often contributes to impoverished
relationships and the destruction of longstanding cultural practices and the
information those practices carry. So, stepping back from this fundamentalism is
not simply sacrifice but an exchange of a certain kind of comfort and easy
amusement for a different set of rewards.
Articulating this is important in a world in which people have come to believe
the good life is synonymous with consumption and the ability to acquire
increasingly sophisticated technology. To miss the way in which turning from the
high-energy/high-technology can improve our lives, then, supports the
techno-fundamentalists, such as this writer in the Wired magazine:
"Green-minded activists failed to move the broader public not because they were
wrong about the problems, but because the solutions they offered were
unappealing to most people. They called for tightening belts and curbing
appetites, turning down the thermostat and living lower on the food chain. They
rejected technology, business, and prosperity in favor of returning to a simpler
way of life. No wonder the movement got so little traction. Asking people in the
world's wealthiest, most advanced societies to turn their backs on the very
forces that drove such abundance is na´ve at best."
Na´ve, perhaps, but not as na´ve as the belief that unsustainable systems can be
sustained indefinitely. With that writer's limited vision -- which is what
passes for vision in this culture -- it's not surprising that he advocates
economic and technological fundamentalist solutions:
"With climate change hard upon us,
a new green movement is taking shape, one that embraces environmentalism's
concerns but rejects its worn-out answers. Technology can be a font of endlessly
creative solutions. Business can be a vehicle for change. Prosperity can help us
build the kind of world we want. Scientific exploration, innovative design, and
cultural evolution are the most powerful tools we have. Entrepreneurial zeal and
market forces, guided by sustainable policies, can propel the world into a
bright green future."
In other words: Let's ignore our
experience and throw the dice. Let's take naivetÚ to new heights. Let's forget
all we should have learned.
So far, it appears my criticism has been of the fundamentalist versions of
religion, nation, capitalism, and high-technology. But the problem goes deeper
than the most exaggerated versions of these systems. If there is to be a livable
future, religion as we know it, the nation-state, capitalism, and what we think
of as advanced technology will have to give way to new ways of understanding the
world and organizing ourselves. We still have to find ways to struggle with the
mystery of the world through ritual and art; organize ourselves politically;
produce and distribute goods and services; and create the tools we need to do
all these things. But the existing systems have proven inadequate to the task.
On each front, we need major conceptual revolutions.
I don't pretend to have answers, nor should anyone else. We are at the beginning
of a long process of redefining what it means to be human in relation to others
and to the non-human world. We are still formulating questions. Some find this a
depressing situation, but we could just as well see it as a time that opens
incredible opportunities for creativity. To live in unsettled times --
especially times in which it's not difficult to imagine life as we know it
becoming increasingly untenable -- is both frightening and exhilarating. In that
sense, my friend's acknowledgement of profound grief need not scare us but
instead can be a place from which we see clearly and gather the strength to move
What is that path? Tracking the four fundamentalisms, we can see some turns we
need to make.
Technologically: We need to stop talking about progress in terms that
reflexively glorify faster and more powerful devices, and instead adopt a
standard for judging progress based on the real effects on humans and the wider
world of which we are a part.
Economically: We need to stop talking about growth in terms of more production
and adopt a standard for economic growth and development based on meeting human
Nationally: We need to stop talking about national security and the national
interest -- code words for serving the goals of the powerful -- and focus on
people's interests in being secure in the basics: food, shelter, education, and
Religiously: We need to stop trying to pin down God. We can understand God as
simply the name we give to that which is beyond our ability to understand, and
recognize that the attempt to create rules for how to know God is always a
I want to end by reinforcing the ultimate importance of that recognition: Most
of the world is complex beyond our ability to comprehend. It's not that there's
nothing we can know through our rational faculties, but that it's essential we
recognize the limits of those faculties. We need to reject the fundamentalist
streak in all of us, religious or secular, whatever our political affiliation.
We need to stop mistaking cleverness for wisdom. We need to embrace our limits
-- our ignorance -- in the hopes that we can stop being so stupid.
When we do that we are coming to terms with the kind of animals we are, in all
our glory and all our limitations. That embrace of our limitations is an embrace
of a larger world of which we are a part, more glorious than most of us ever
When we do that -- if we can find our way clear to do that -- I think we make
possible love in this world. Not an idealized love, but a real love that
recognizes the joy that is possible and the grief that is inevitable.
It is my dream to live in that world, to live in that love.
There is much work to be done if we want that world. There is enormous struggle
that can't be avoided. When we allow ourselves to face it, we will realize that
ahead of us there is suffering beyond description, as well as potential for
transcending that suffering.
There is grief and joy.
And there is nothing to do but face it.
Robert Jensen is a journalism professor at the University of Texas at