The Materialist Hegemony

by Arthur Versluis

Until now, you might well have never thought about how pervasive is materialism. Really, it’s only when we look at it directly and intently that we begin to see its magnitude. Its assumptions underlie virtually everything in global technological society. But at the same time, it is hidden in plain sight. Our purpose now is to explore that hegemony.

Economics is a form of objectification. Only what is objectified is valued in a materialistic worldview. A “piece of property” is considered “vacant” unless it is profitably used, that is, objectified and made into a lot for housing, or mined, or a factory site. Property does not have intrinsic value, let alone sacred value, except to the degree it has objectified monetary value, as when a pretty site overlooking a lake fetches a premium for the vista it offers. The very notion of a “sacred site” or a “sacred landscape” is foreign to such a system, in which it cannot be conceived, except possibly in terms of some monetary value such as that brought by tourism, again an objectification.

The subjective is devalued unless it can be converted into objectified value, in a novel, for instance, or a painting. The subjective also can be converted into objectified value through psychological or psychiatric treatment, pharmaceutical or otherwise. The subjective self is hence classified from dysfunctional to functional within the system. Providing a means to transform a dysfunctional individual into a functional one can be lucrative, of course.

In a materialistic worldview, politics is a subset of economics. Of course, there are other kinds of politics, but here we are considering politics in both capitalist and communist societies, where the political élite swiftly become, if they are not already, economic élites. The politician in a materialistic system is machiavellian or calculating, whether more or less avaricious. Why not? In a materialistic worldview, there is nothing higher than the material world, and calculations on behalf of oneself or those one “represents” is only rational.

Politicians who rise to power must have monetary resources to do so. The more power, the more money, and candidate campaigns are typically ranked on the basis of the money they can raise. What do donors get for their money? Of course there is an implicit quid pro quo. A good politician is one who can grease the wheels for his constituents, not all of them, necessarily, but definitely those who can support his campaign with money.

Once in power, a politician’s value can be objectified in monetary terms for donors or donor (oligarch-controlled) organizations, in terms of allocation of resources brought in through taxes and repurposed to pay (with public funds gained through taxation) for projects lucrative for some investors or oligarchs. Thus for instance, a state governor might break wind about her commitment to high-minded “ecological” causes, while in reality paving the way for her oligarch donors to override local safeguards and ramrod through gigantic projects that render hundreds of thousands of fertile farmland into sterile, plastic, glass, and metal solar arrays over a gravel-covered flattened biologically-free artificial desert. All of this is a result of a totally materialistic and objectifying worldview in which a local farm population and ecosystem actually means less than nothing, except as grist for the economic mill that brings her political-economic resources, i.e, money and power.

In those areas where religion and culture still have some sway, of course there may be political representatives who assert higher values than the displacement of people and destruction of land by conversion into money and power. They can be a bulwark against the predominantly materialistic system, but as our example above indicates, it is very difficult to provide a bulwark against a centralized power system in which political and economic interests converge at the top. In fact, the whole point of the legislation in this case was to override centrally the local objections of those with higher values.

Materialism is the worldview of centralized, Machiavellian power both economic and political. You easily can see why, if you think about it. In a materialistic world, there is really no moral center or moral constraints. There is only the accumulation of wealth and the ruthless exertion of power. If there is nothing beyond the physical, why not accumulate as much wealth and power at the expense of others or of the natural world? An honest answer is: no reason, no reason at all, really.

Science is of course fundamentally materialistic in its premises—not surprisingly, since its purview is to expand fundamental knowledge about the cosmos. Biology, and concomitant evolutionary theory, are of course materialistic; chemistry naturally is so; and physics, including quantum physics, is also fundamentally materialistic even if the specific elements or mathematical aspects are “strange” or the particles or aspects of the cosmos almost inconceivably subtle or miniscule. In Roger Penrose’s magisterial survey of quantum physics, The Road to Reality, there is no mention of religion or spirituality. Why should there be? Those kinds of subjects are entirely outside its purview.

There was a time, not too long ago, when academic humanities included those who sought to represent meaning and purpose in human life, those aspects of life not limited by the strictly materialistic. For more than a century, universities and colleges housed what were called the humanities, or the liberal arts, and in those parts of higher education were concentrated people whose teaching and writing broadly were understood as cultural custodians who initiated their young students and readers into the arcane mysteries of traditional literature, art, and philosophy, the idea being that here one could find robust, cultured dialogue in a tradition reflecting medieval and ancient roots as far back as the Platonic Academy of ancient Greece. This benign tradition of secular humanism still exists here and there, of course, with periodic resurgences and new champions.

The priest-like fathers of literary criticism or philosophy saw themselves as tending the great tradition of Western European culture, and there is certainly some value in that. It implies something more than materialistic nihilism. One studies literature or philosophy to clarify one’s intelligence, to expand one’s understanding of humanity’s panoply of characters, to become cultured and perhaps even to set one’s consciousness alight with a clear gemlike flame. But in secular humanism itself we can see the seeds of what came after.

For there is not really much at the center of secular humanism other than the vague sense that an individual could become more knowledgeable of the great tradition and thereby more cultured. While it did maintain a kind of meritocracy, it also espoused freedom of views, and through this open door of course came nihilists, those who hated the past, hated the tradition, and sought to expand individualistic license as far as possible. Through this door came “dialectical materialists,” first as occasional pseudo-rebel figures. Then, as they gained power and dominance, far-left ideology became largely hegemonic in the humanities in higher education. Soon, genteel secular humanism had become quaint, then suppressed, and finally faded from memory.

What was it replaced by? Dialectical materialism—that is, variant forms of leftist ideology. Hatred of the great achievements of the past, statue-toppling “cultural revolution,” as Mao termed it— essentially, in the Western European and diasporic world, an anti-meritocratic animus. Secular humanism had been more or less meritocratic—there were standards, expectations, cultural aspirations. But in this new nihilistic worldview, all that belonged to the suddenly “contemptible” past seen through wholly materialistic lenses of external racial, sexual, or other characteristics.

This was increasingly enforced by centralized apparatchiks, as they were known in the Soviet Union—agents of the apparatus, or functionaries. In an ideocracy, that is, a state under the sway of ideological conformism, there must be those who enforce the ideology. Ideology has to be enforced, with an apparatus of snitches and inquisitors, because it generates a second, false “reality” based on lies or half-truths. Those subject to the ideocratic system have to pretend to be believers in the lies, or risk losing their job, being put through a show trial whose outcome is pre-ordained, being imprisoned or put in a gulag, or being killed.

When after decades of communist persecution, dissident Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn finally was released from the Siberian gulag and flew to live in Vermont, within a few years, he penned an important address titled A World Split Apart. In it, he did not praise American society, but rather offered penetrating critiques of it. The essence of his critique is that American society is in decline, and like Soviet society, is captivated by a delusional anti-religious materialism. Contemporary America, he thought, does not offer a healthy model for Russia or the rest of the world because it shares with the Soviet Union and Communist China a fundamentally materialistic, secular humanistic worldview. It too tramples on the human spirit, he believed—albeit not at that time with surveillance, censorship operations, show trials, and the other nightmarish aspects of outright communism.

Solzhenitsyn recognized the root of the problem that produced the horrors of communism, and that was nascent in the United States as well even when he spoke his controversial address in 1978, though it would be many decades before the materialistic left seized power there. Solzhenitsyn recognized that there is a clear path from secular humanism to anti-religious totalitarianism, and a return to secular humanism will provide no ultimate respite from the latter. The world, he said has “reached a major watershed in history.” To enter a new era “will demand from us a spiritual effort,” a “new height of vision,” a “new level of life,” not rejecting the physical, but also in which “our spiritual being will not be trampled upon, as in the modern era.”

Very near the end of that address, Solzhenitsyn also asked some pointed questions. He asked “Is it true that man is above everything? Is there no Superior Spirit above him? Is it right that man’s life and society’s activities should be ruled by material expansion above all? Is it permissible to promote such expansion to the detriment of our integral spiritual life?” All of these questions are, at their root, critiques of modern materialism and its dysfunctional progeny in Eastern and Western worlds, indeed, around the entire globe.

These questions in turn echoed the insights of another great Russian author, Fyodor Dostoevski, who in his novel The Brothers Karamazov offers a distinction between those who champion godmanhood [theanthropos, Christ] and those who assert mangodhood [anthropotheus]. Those who assert mangodhood ultimately produce the totalitarian state of the Grand Inquisitor, who imposes his censorious will upon secular society, surveilling, arresting, imprisoning, torturing, and killing in the name of the man-god, that is, the hegemony of man raised up as if he were a god, or godlike.

Without doubt, Dostoevsky and the Russian spiritual authors of the “Silver Age,” including Vladimir Solovyov, Sergei Bulgakov, and of course the great Nikolai Berdyaev, all had related insights into the then emerging modern era and its consequences, so soon to engulf Russia. What they recognized has continued to develop since then, and we can see how a materialistic worldview expressed through science and technology gives birth to ever more grandiose notions of mangodhood.

Science, expressed in technological advances, does lend a certain plausibility to efforts at achieving mangoodhood. Human beings seek a kind of artificial immortality through uploading into a virtual platform; they seek to gain more and more power over the natural world and the cosmos as a whole, which can be exploited to generate product and wealth; they seek to engineer the weather and to control the climate of an entire planet; they seek power of universal surveillance and of manipulating others through advertising or more subtle means; they seek to generate controlled societies where dissent is eliminated and obedience is certain. All of these are human efforts to be godlike, to take on godlike attributes or powers.

The human being, cut off from the great spiritual inheritance of humanity, seeks artificial substitutes for authentic spirituality, and technology does provide them. But what technology is providing, however subtle and however remarkable, is limited to a subject manipulating a world of objects (which includes objectified people, of course). And in this objectification entails a coarsening of our deeper human nature—objectification is powerful outwardly in that it can manipulate our perceptions, the natural world, other people, but that strength comes at the cost of our soul, our inner richness.

Materialism is a kind of deal with the devil. We gain materially, but we lose spiritually. To the extent we gain the world, we lose our soul. Of course the materialist will tell us with authority that there is no soul, and that we have no inner richness in the first place. But is this really so? Or are those hollow words from a hollow man who wants you to be hollow too?

All manner of arguments are marshalled against the higher aspects of life, and our human potential, but when you examine their assertions, you generally find that they are what I term assumptive assertions, meaning that they have behind them hidden assumptions from which the assertion is made. When you realize what the assumptions are, and that they are false, then the subsequent assertion falls apart because it turns out to be resting on nothing.

Let’s take, for example, an assertion that religion is the opiate of the people. The underlying assumptions undergirding this remark are all materialistic. “Religion” is understood to be “escapism,” but “escaping” what? Of course the answer is the total hegemony of materialism, which, it is assumed, we cannot “escape.” The “people” or “the masses” need to leave behind the “superstitions” of religion in order to enter into an envisioned utopian society in a materialistic world. The underlying assumptions of the assertion cannot be questioned for the assertion to stand.

This is why materialism and its political offshoots are so utterly dogmatic. They cannot bear questioning. Materialism itself rests on a denial of religious and spiritual, and cultural dimensions of human life. But when you look directly at that denial, you discover that it is entirely assumptive, and that those assumptions are by no means proven. In fact, they amount to handwaving, like a stage magician that makes a jet plane or a car seem to disappear. But in reality, the plane or car is still there, you just might not see it.

The political offshoots of materialism are the same. This is why when the far left takes power, it is compelled to criminalize questioning, let alone dissent. Such criminalization of dissent may take “softer” forms initially, such as working through secondary or tertiary parties, for instance, government censorship via corporations that in turn are rewarded behind the scenes for their cooperation, or directly in “harder” forms such as imprisonment, gulags, torture, and death to political “heretics.” And it is why religious practitioners are often a chief target of political persecutions by those on the materialist left.

Over the centuries in Western Europe and in the Western European diaspora since the “Enlightenment,” the materialist hegemony has become ever stronger, especially after the export of “dialectical materialist” ideology, which itself has a hidden religious aspect, so that whole nations such as China were fully under its enforced sway for decade after decade. But even in putatively “free” countries, materialism became the dominant ideology, pervading nearly every field and sphere of knowledge.

Ultimately, a materialist hegemony achieved almost total dominance in science, in politics, in economics, in science and technology, and even to some extent in religion, so much so that materialistic premises are assumed, and therefore hidden in plain sight nearly everywhere. To question those assumptions is indeed the ultimate heresy in the contemporary world. Yet here we are. We will turn to the consequences of the materialistic hegemony next.

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