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The Four Fundamentalism


TRIBE Member
Just got done reading this. Brings up a good point... that being we should stop acting like we know everything and understand things keeping in mind our ignorance of the world.

The Threats to Sustainable Democracy
The Four Fundamentalisms

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 they point.

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 them.

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 the 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.