Faith, Nostalgia, and Hurricane Capitalism

St. Philip’s Catholic Church in Battle Creek, Michigan. Temples like this serve as empty refuges from the crucified American Dream.

Battle Creek, Michigan used to have factories. It doesn’t have many of them anymore. As The Guardian’s Chris Arnade writes in his profile of Battle Creek’s disenchanted voters, “with the economic backbone broken, with hope in the future dimming, faith has become more central as a source of community, solace and hope.”

American society has reached a very real tipping point. Capitalism’s creative destruction has left millions of people with nothing more than amorphous notions of “faith” to lead them through the penury-stricken Land of the Free. Those just retiring are hoping to scrounge together what little benefits they have left, while those just starting out are facing the bleak reality of a future without any retirement at all. If you were a betting person, however, you’d know that rolling the dice on faith usually means giving away your chips to the House.

The people in Battle Creek embraced Barack Obama’s “Hope and Change” in 2008 and 2012 only to back the Malevolent Orange Dictator in 2016. Too many years spent as living examples of the human detritus left behind after hurricane capitalism plowed through their communities finally broke their will to believe in the future. So they embraced a false promise of a restored past instead. On one level, you can’t blame them: America’s official state religion is that of buy and exchange. Americans not only let the money changers into the temple, we also decked them out in priestly robes and took their every utterance as equivalent to the sacred utterings from atop Mount Sinai. And for a while, the money changers shared their wealth — but that didn’t last.

I’m not sure where we can go from this point. So many people have been baptized in the religion of global capitalism that they can’t imagine abandoning the faith of their parents without feeling the weight of betrayal on their shoulders. Lacking any real alternatives, our culture merely prescribes bigger doses of capitalism to treat the vast sickness caused by capitalism. Socialism once held out a promise of a different way, but it sacrificed itself on the failed, bloody altars of Lenin, Stalin, and Mao.

An abandoned Packard Automobile plant in Detroit, Michigan, the Pompeii of modern capitalism.

Without any real alternative (even if only a different way of imagining capitalism), millions of Americans are left with an uneasy, impractical, and unactionable mix of faith and nostalgia. In the 1960s, historian Arthur Dudden characterized nostalgia as a type of “cultural homesickness” that “implies a certain dissatisfaction with present circumstances, and very likely also a dissatisfaction with the apparent direction of trends leading into the future.” This is an apt description of the state of America in 2017.

Until the destruction of the past points towards a future worth anticipating, “cultural homesickness” will continue to define the new American Dream, and demagogues like Donald Trump will offer false hope in the form of continued deference to the money changers. When the time comes to collect the dues, however, the money changers will always kick the laity out of the temple, and the laity will always wonder why they can’t just get new money changers.

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