1st World Liberation Theology:

I presume the case has been made for the poverty of the USA, for the poverty of everyday life. The task at hand, then, is how to address the poverty of our lives - how to re-interpret our religion such that it becomes a liberating force instead of a soporific one. I call this task a "theology of liberation for the first world"1. Specifically, I present a theology of liberation for those members of the first world who suffer anonymity under all previous liberation theologies. This gospel aims to liberate the rich2.

I. How is 1st world liberation theology different from 3rd world liberation theology?
A. Different religion: Capitalism in lieu of Christianity
       A liberation theology for the first world will be radically different than all heretofore-existing liberation theologies, because the very root of theology - religion - is radically different. In America(tm)3 Capitalism, not Christianity, is our religion, our ideology, our opiate. Capitalism replaced the story of the resurrection with dime novels about Dick Whatshisname. Capitalism built megamalls on the ruins of churches and converted the holiest of places into mere places to consume. Capitalism gives communion at every ATM and checkout line. Capitalism switches the ideology of community with the ideology of individuality, but leaves their basis - alienation - untouched. Capitalism recasts the old dialect of sacrifice and salvation into the new dialect of "buy one, get one free" and "profit to earnings ratio". Dialects aside, the language of hierarchical social structure persists. Capitalism is the material reconstruction of the religious illusion; preserving the most oppressive facets of Christian ideology, it simply decapitated God and instated rational self-interest in his stead.

B. Because the theology is different, the liberating theology must also be different
       Because the two theologies - Capitalism and Christianity - are so different, the liberating theologies must be correspondingly different as well. However, the process of liberation remains the same, as do the corrections such the new theology makes to the old. The liberation of modern capitalist theology must be, as was traditional liberation theology, a liberation of Capitalism as well as a theology of liberation. Of course, as in its traditional incarnation, both types of liberation come through the process of immersion, analysis, and praxis.
       As an example of how to apply the adjustments of Liberation Christianity to Liberation Capitalism, I examine Christianity's treatment of salvation and its analog in Capitalism. I hope that such an example indicates how the method of liberation operates independent of the religion in need of liberation.
       Traditional Christianity, as it has filtered down to the laity of the early 21st century, places salvation outside of human history. Only after birth, original sin, works, faith, and death does salvation appear. The political ramifications of this geography of salvation presented themselves in every Latin American village: resignation in the face of an existence4 whose "wretchedness defies imagination"5 . The immanent connection? Religion disguises poverty as one chapter in the grand book of life, whose remaining pages - in the Kingdom of God - overflow with eternal justice, God's love, food, and arable land. With such a future guaranteed, what is the use of squabbling over crumbs in the miserable present? Liberation theology turns the tables on typical Christianity by placing salvation within human history, and thus making it accessible once again. Liberation theology thunders, "you must seek liberation today and tomorrow". Politically, this theology suggests the Salvadoran peasant redress her grievances with the local landowner immediately, for there is no other world where land reform flows like cerveza6.
       This relocation of salvation, from without to within human history and possibility, essentially reaffirms the importance of the real. A liberation theology for Capitalism must preserve this essential affirmation, albeit in a vastly different form. Under late Capitalism, as demonstrated by a variety of 20th century Marxist humanists7, it is the image of the real, rather than its idealization, which rules. Economically, this upheaval manifests itself as the war between exchange value and use value, a war that exchange value is winning. Socially, the image's role in society manifests apparently in television, advertising, and the relentless pursuit of status8. Liberation Capitalism, therefore, sets itself the task of returning the focus to the real. We must blink at the image of a fragrant pound of coffee, and focus upon the actual social relations that bring that coffee to us9. To focus on the real means to delve behind the illusions of advertising - to inquire behind the packaging, sale price, and freshness date. It means an understanding that everything we consume that is not natural has been produced, labored, by woman10. As in the third world example, reaffirming the importance brings about a dramatic political effect. Once one attains knowledge of the conditions of production, the choice to consume hinges not only upon merely economic considerations, but also upon ethical ones11. First world liberation theology aims itself at those who busy themselves with the former while ignoring the latter.

C. Different religions, same method
       Hence, though Capitalism and Christianity are quite different ideologies, the liberationist reversal of perspective applies equally well to both. Therefore, we proceed through the process of traditional liberation theology to attain a theology of liberation for Capitalism.

II. Immersion
       As the Medillín Bishops declared in 1968, immersion is the first step in any theology of liberation. The theologian must understand the lives of el pueblo: the people whom the new theology aims to liberate. To immerse oneself in the lives of the Latin American poor, one needed to live in Chalate, to farm corn and beans, and to know the fear with which the peasants awoke every day. To immerse oneself in the lives of the American(tm) poor, one needs to live amongst the rich. As Stanford students, we have already done so12. Though not nearly as obvious as in the case of Central American peasantry, this pamphlet claims Americans(tm) suffer the effects of their obsession with material wealth more than they enjoy it.

A. Who needs immersion? We live here.
       However, first world liberation theology differs from its third world incarnation in that its priests are also its laity: every woman may be she own catechist. In this light, immersion is unnecessary; we already live here. To immerse oneself means finally to notice one's own life for what it truly is, to escape the propaganda model and the net of received ideas. This task is not as easy as it may seem13.
       To truly understand our own lives, we must understand how we fit into the bigger picture of society. The justification for a holistic understanding, surprisingly enough, is not merely humanistic - we are economically and politically tied to the rest of the world through the global economy and media. We must understand our individuality in social terms. What does this mean? A wholesale reevaluation of everything that is bought and sold - ideology included. Homo consummator makes the two essential mistakes: she is unable to understand a) the goods she buys are the products of human labor and b) her own reification qua consumer. The dictatorship of the image obfuscates both these realities by dressing products in garments of objectivity and duping the consumer into thinking she is somehow privileged. Consumption is boring. As a society of consumers, we have totally ceased to create our culture. Our expressions, mannerisms, and catch phrases trickle-down to us through the television. Our views on politics are only as sophisticated and nuanced as the quality of newsmagazine we can afford (or able to comprehend). Our insistence on the newness and cleanliness of manufactured goods makes a mockery out of individual labor. Most kids prefer their spaghetti sauce out of a can. We live isolated lives, adrift from each other with no bearing on the real. What's reported becomes what happened. What we see becomes what is. Long-term concerns? Forgotten.
       Once one achieves a new understanding of one's daily life, one can turn to immersion. Immerse yourself in "reality television, malls, theme-parks, car dealerships, and travel agencies. Immerse yourself until you see society modern society for it is: a sick joke.

B. What next?
       Only once we are clear on the alienation, exploitation, and boredom that our the currency of our every transaction can we abstract to the necessary analysis. Again, this presupposes something truly ails America(tm); the liberationist critique goes far beyond calling for charity or a raise in the minimum wage14. The poverties - material and psychological - created by the American(tm) machine are structural - no amount of reforms, "social programs", or development can change that structure.

III. Analysis
       After immersion, analysis. Once we notice the structure of our society, we endeavor to understand it. Our question evolves from "how are we living?" to "how can theology change our lives", that is, how can liberation theology break down the bonds of boredom tying us to our lazy boys? To do so, to understand the historically developed structure of late Capitalism, we must return to the scriptures. Traditional liberation theologians analyzed the received wisdom of their communities - the gospels - in terms of Marxist theory. In turn, we analyze our dominant ideologies in terms of the same theory, the early, humanist writings of Karl Marx15.

A. ESPC situation
       Marx's economic analysis of social relations carries the following framework: underneath the political relations of any society are social relations, which in turn are underlain with economic relations16. I modify his analysis to take account of the current state (which philosophers optimistically term 'late') of Capitalism; our culture is similarly dependent, after social and political relations, on the underlying economic structure. And for the average first world-er, culture is most important layer in the analytical onion17. First world liberation theology presumes Americans(tm) can be persuaded to care about the sorry state of their everyday lives - about 60-hour workweeks, tasteless food, predictable dialogue, and general malaise.

B. What is the radix of the problem?
       The root of the problem, then, is economic. Theoretically, our economic base produces our culture. Ironically, this bit of theory has a ubiquitous literal interpretation: every aspect of our culture is branded with the logo of some corporation. The clothes we wear, dishes we wash, and news we hear are all produced by someone else, the branded for our attention and consumption. The root of the problem of boredom, quite obviously, is lack of creativity, lack of involvement in our everyday lives. Just as the ideology of Christianity encouraged its believers to think of the afterlife, the ideology of Capitalism encourages us to delay gratification until the next paycheck or vacation. Until then, we shouldn't think about our daily existence - we shouldn't examine what it means to spend two hours every day in traffic, eight hours pushing papers under florescent lights at the office, only twenty minutes eating silently with our families, and three more hours falling asleep under the television. The reality of the situation, the analysts report, is that we are only living our lives by proxy. We know who's wearing what to the Oscars, which team will get how far in the NCAA tournament, and which stocks went up or down - all without knowing what's for dinner, how are friends are doing, or what we think about our own lives!

C. What can be done to change the way we live?
       A radical theology addresses the problems of religion at their roots. Liberation Capitalism must then reject the basic forms of Capitalism, as internalized in our every day lives, in order to liberate us from our spiritual and psychological impoverishment. Such a rejection often first appears on the level of theory - of an abstract awakening to the problems of consumer Capitalism - but must eventually manifest itself in praxis.

IV. Praxis
       Praxis: the holy grail of the modern revolutionary movement. In Latin America, the liberation theologians achieved praxis through the politicization of their preaching: instead of breaching the typical religious bromides, they spiked their sermons with a dose of the new acid truth. They then built "base ecclesiastical communities", where members of their congregations were free to spend time reading and reflecting upon the scriptures. In this way, liberation theologians circumvented the hierarchical relationship between preacher and flock: the people performed their own analysis. Correspondingly, we must build "base economic communities", where we allow ourselves the time to listen and reflect on our own lives. A side effect of ubiquitous college education is a supposedly educated populace - Liberation Capitalism would put those claims to the test and encourage people to read. Central to the success of these communities would be liberation from certain aspects of late capitalist technological development, specifically those aspects which mandate reliance on hidden labor. Consumption - though necessary to some degree - could be minimized through personal labor, which in turn fills the hollowness dug by modern society. Through joint labor, reflection, and mere being, base communities could exorcise the economic relations their participants have internalized and replace them with humanistic ones18. Such communities are voluntary (of course), and do exist. However, such communities must be openly political - they must flaunt their existence as a civil war on Capitalism. Only then can they truly be recognized for what they are - not so much as an 'alternative' lifestyle which attracts one while young, but as a radical re-imagining of modern society.

V. Critique
       Any non-ironic discourse subjects its author to critique. Here I shall answer the three most popular objections: a) America(tm) is doing fine, b) However America(tm) is doing, its the best of all possible worlds, and c) Human nature is not essentially good. Each of these trivial critiques has an equally trivial refutation, which I shall blithely give.

A. We dont need it
       The first critique, "we're doing fine", suggests that America(tm) has no structural problems. The conservative version, championed by Objectivists, exalts the selfishness and isolation of modern Americans(tm), openly supports child labor, and refuses to recognize any considerations - such as the aesthetic or ethical - other than the economic19. Though some (most?) find such a philosophy repulsive, I grant it is honest, a trait none of the more liberal apologists for Capitalism share. According to them, Capitalism is itself a liberating force, and with minor adjustments (i.e. welfare), a rising tide lifts all boat. Pretty soon, they prophesize, the third world will join the first world in prosperity. Such defense pays no attention to the dire state of the environment nor the utter ruin of capitalist culture. In any case, the premise of this document is that you don't believe this critique.

B. This is the best we can do.
       Much has been made in recent years, since the decline of Soviet Communism, of this claim. The verdict is in, according to the pundits, and (drumroll, please...) Capitalism won! Because Capitalism is vastly superior to the disaster that was Communism, we should prostrate ourselves to its wishes: this is the best of all possible worlds. In the way of refutation, I offer Voltaire's Candide.

C. Its not in our nature
       The most frequent objection I find, and many times, the objection that the other two eventually reduce to, is "human nature is not essentially good", and thus we cannot create a just society. I don't believe any amount of philosophy can change someone's view of human nature, and recommend Immersion to anyone who believes this.

VI. Resolution
A. Address critiques a whole
       Regarding the critiques as a whole, I hope it apparent that first liberation theology is a qualitative business, and does not address critiques on a quantitative nor hyper-rational basis. What is essential about woman is not her reason but her compassion - her ability to feel.

B. Concluding Notes
       The basis for accepting a theology of liberation into your heart is one of immanent necessity. In the words of Mario Savio:
       "There comes a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious, makes you so sick at heart, that you cannot take part; you cannot even tacitly take part. And you've got to put your bodies upon the wheels, and the gears and all the apparatus, and you have to make it stop. And you have to make it clear to the people who own it, and to the people who run it, that until you are free their machine will be prevented from running at all."
       Now, for us, is that time.


  1. I reluctantly use the terms "first world" and "third world". Their racist and imperialistic connotations are well-documented.
  2. Note, a "liberation theology of the first world" is a term I am using generically to cover a specific demographic for the 1st world. This does not aim to convert hippies, activists, blacks or the poor. This is primarily for middle class (and above) white (or those minorities who like to think of themselves as white) consumers. Mainstream victims and success stories of late Capitalism. You have a decent car and drive to work alone. You have a fireplace but use the heater. You have two dining rooms and know nobody to invite. Your pots are new and your cookbooks are dusty. You own a telescope and have no idea where to point it.
  3. America(tm) here signifies the consumer capitalist culture of western industrialized Capitalism. It is what Kalle Lasn calls USA(tm) in his book (where I got the term) and what the Situationists call the spectacle (where he got the term).
  4. One hesitates to call it a life.
  5. The Romero reading
  6. A distinction: liberation theology's affirmation of the importance of this world does not imply a denial of the ideal world, God's Kingdom. It merely maintains we must create the Kingdom of Heaven on Earth.
  7. Guy Debord most prominently and completely among them, with his 1967 book Society of the Spectacle
  8. many thanks to Lexus for the phrase.
  9. People, perhaps children, may have labored for many hours, under duress, to pick those beans. The factories that ground them and the trucks which transported them were assembled in countries with low or non-existent labor and environmental standards. The store from where you bought that bag may contribute a share of its profits to ensure the stability of a foreign military dictatorship.)
  10. I use the word woman and its corresponding pronouns in a gender neutral sense
  11. As a corollary, realignment with the real liberates qualitative concerns (such as quality of life) from their quantitative emasculation (like standard of living)
  12. You've spent weekends skiing in Tahoe, noticed who doesn't need financial aid (but perhaps gets it anyhow), and typed papers on your roommate's succession of new laptops.
  13. It helps to read: Necessary Illusions, The Media Monopoly, The History of Public Relations, Savage Inequalities, A People's History of United States, Rogue State. Just as reading the Massacre at El Mozote and watching Romero or that other movie about el salvador is necessary for understanding a world we never lived in, watching Manufacturing Consent or Fight Club or American Beauty gives a small window into the unexamined live which we have been living.
  14. Liberation theology asks for justice before charity. Situationists say: "slaves who make their slavery more tolerable strike a blow for their masters."
  15. We attempt to clear our heads of decades of mystification and ideology, which mask the essential question in terms of comparative justifications and hypotheses of inevitability. For an address to the former, see Schweikerts chapter on non-comparative justifications of Capitalism in Against Capitalism. Regarding the latter, skim over Francis Fukoyama's book The End of History to see how Capitalism is it.
  16. This is not simple economic determinism. Marx, rather like his contemporary Darwin, does not claim that a given factors of production dictate relations of production. Rather, he claims given relations of production are shattered by changing factors of production (they can be seem as evolutionary unfit) and are replaced with a social superstructure more suitable to the given economic base.
  17. More important than environmental devastation which our consumption habits create every day, more important than the reality of sweatshop, forced, and child labor around the world, more important than the economic situation in which 5% of Americans(tm) are wealthier than the other 95%, more important than the fact that huge corporations exert more influence over state and federal governments than citizens, etc...
  18. There will be no more watch-glancing during conversation because everybody will be worth everybody else's time.
  19. I asked Andrew Lewis, an Australian Objectivist talk-show host about any ethical or aesthetic relationship to the land, and he basically said 'no'. No other Objectivists I've met (before or since) as refuted that position. Admittedly, I no longer go out of my way to talk to Objectivists.