The following is an adaptation from Rod Dreher’s “Live Not by Lies: A Manual for Christian Dissidents”.
A curious thing is happening in the immediate aftermath of the US presidential election: Facebook, Eventbrite, and other gatekeepers of the electronic public square are refusing to let Trump supporters organize protests through their platforms. No one should be surprised. Now and in the days to come, Big Tech and Woke Capital — that is, financial firms and corporations that embrace progressive values — will ramp up their campaign to marginalize and silence dissenters.
Not too many people cared when the conspiracy theorist Alex Jones was deplatformed and denied the ability to make money from his extremist broadcasts. Similarly, it is hard to feel too sorry for the British far-right activists recently cut off from their bank accounts over their political activism. But if you think it’s going to stop with radical right figures, you’re deluding yourself.
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A Christian ministry in the UK is planning to sue Barclays bank for refusing to do business with them out of concern for the ministry’s traditional Christian beliefs about homosexuality. It is only a matter of time — and not much time — before American banks and corporations begin to treat traditional Christians and other social conservatives the same way. Conservatives — political, social, and religious — are now living in a hostile new world, one in which defending their liberties depends on discarding cherished myths by which they have long made sense of the world.
For some time now, naturalized American citizens who grew up in the Soviet bloc have been saying that they’re seeing in this country the rise of something that reminds them of what they left behind. It’s not Stalinism 2.0, but it is totalitarian in the sense that it is an all-encompassing system that seeks to politicize all aspects of life, demonizes people based on their identity, and will brook absolutely no dissent.
What makes this totalitarianism so difficult to see clearly is the fact that it is soft. Unlike in Stalin’s Russia, it does not depend on inflicting pain and terror to eliminate its opponents. Rather, it seeks control by manipulating access to comfort and status. It’s less Nineteen Eighty-Four and more Brave New World. Two decades ago, the intellectual and critic René Girard — not a refugee from Communism — saw it coming.
“The current process of spiritual demagoguery and rhetorical overkill has transformed the concern for victims into a totalitarian command and a permanent inquisition,” he wrote. Survivors of Communism are saying the same thing: that liberalism’s admirable care for the weak and marginalized is fast turning into a monstrous ideology that, if it is not stopped, will transform liberal democracy into a therapeutic form of totalitarianism.
Why have conservatives been so blind to this quiet revolution? Here are some reasons.
Conservatives did not take leftist elites seriously.
It is not news to conservatives that universities, especially Ivy League schools and others that form the next generation of the ruling class, are hotbeds of leftism. For some time, though, many conservatives have operated under the illusion that students will move to the right once they descend from the ivory tower and the designated safe spaces of campus, and start paying taxes in the so-called real world.
That ceased to be true with the Millennial generation, and Generation Z. They held on to their progressive indoctrination, and marched with it through the institutions of American society. Now these radicals are transforming them, in part because the older stewards of corporations, universities, media, and professions are capitulating before the ferocity of the young militants.
Conservatives have not generally understood that cultural change happens through elites and their networks. Nor have they grasped the fragility of liberal institutions. The dissident Polish intellectual Czeslaw Milosz observed in the early 1950s, shortly after his defection, that the people of eastern Europe did not realize until it was too late “that their fate could be influenced directly by intricate and abstruse books of philosophy.” Similarly, the kinds of ideas that used to be restricted to grievance studies faculties in left-wing universities are now ruling the Human Resources departments in major US corporations.
Conservatives were too materialistic.
Reagan-era conservatives, seeing how cynical many 1960s campus radicals became about careers and consumption, assumed that leftist utopianism would not survive the allure of moneymaking. Religious conservatives, in particular, focused their passions on achieving political and legal power, and failed to pass on the faith to the Millennials and Generation Z, who are the most secular generations in American history.
Conservatives did not grasp what Milosz tried to tell us in the 1950s, when he said that Americans misunderstood the appeal of Communism, mistakenly believing that people only turn to it because they are forced to.
“That is wrong,” he wrote. “There is an internal longing for harmony and happiness that lies deeper than ordinary fear or the desire to escape misery or physical destruction.”
The social justice phalanx radicalizing American institutions are taking over in part through force and intimidation. But they are also appealing to the deep desire for a sense of meaning and purpose in the hearts of younger Americans, who have not found it in traditional religion or bourgeois capitalism.
Conservatives thought capitalism was naturally on their side.
To Americans conditioned by the Cold War, the all-powerful state seemed the biggest threat to liberty. We grew up reading Orwell in high school and hearing news accounts of defectors from communist countries who testified to the horrors of life under total government control.
To many on the Right, especially libertarians schooled by the novels of Ayn Rand, corporations seemed the natural opponent of the leviathan state. As institutions of private enterprise, corporations were seen by conservatives as more naturally virtuous than the state. The Cold War might have compelled conservatives to make peace with Big Government, but they were willing to accept Big Business as a bulwark against a too-powerful state — and on the global front, as important weapons in advancing American soft power against Soviet hegemony.
Now an elite club of global megacorporations are more powerful than many countries. Walmart has more annual revenue than Spain and more than twice as much as Russia. ExxonMobil is bigger, revenuewise, than India, Norway, or Turkey. As international strategist Parag Khanna says, in a world where Apple has more cash on hand than two-thirds of the world’s nations, “corporations are likely to overtake all states in terms of clout.” In an America that now runs on the internet, five companies — Facebook, Apple, Amazon, Microsoft, Google — have an almost incalculable influence over public and private life.
And these corporations are very “woke,” to use the slang term for progressive enlightenment.
Woke capitalism is now the most transformative agent within the religion of social justice, because it unites progressive ideology with the most potent force in American life: consumerism and making money.
In his 2018 letter to investors, Larry Fink, CEO of the global investment company BlackRock, said that corporate social responsibility is now part of the cost of doing business.
“Society is demanding that companies, both public and private, serve a social purpose,” Fink wrote. “To prosper over time, every company must not only deliver financial performance, but also show how it makes a positive contribution to society.”
Poll results about consumer expectations back Fink up. Millennials and Generation Z customers are especially prone to seeing their consumer expenditures as part of creating a socially conscious personal brand identity. For many companies, then, signaling progressive virtues to consumers is a smart business move in the same way that signaling all-American patriotism would have been to corporations in the 1950s.
But what counts as a “positive contribution to society”? Corporations like to brand themselves as being in favor of a predictable constellation of causes, all of them guiding stars of the progressive cosmos. Woke capitalist branding harnesses the unmatched propaganda resources of the advertising industry to send the message, both explicitly and implicitly: the beliefs of social conservatives and religious traditionalists are obstacles to the social good.
A major turning point in the culture war came in 2015, when major corporations lined up against the state of Indiana over its recently passed religious freedom law, which the companies considered to be anti-gay. That was the first time Woke Capitalism had deployed its might like that in the culture war — and it won.
Conservatives, like all Americans, are naïve about technology.
Two years ago, I sat in the parlor of the Prague apartment of former anti-Communist dissident Kamila Bendova, whose late husband spent four years in a Czech prison for his activism. She told me she cannot understand why people these days are so willing to hand over private data to corporations.
“Information means power,” she told me. “We know from our life under the totalitarian regime that if you know something about someone, you can manipulate him or her. You can use it against them. The secret police have evidence of everything like that. They could use it all against you. Anything!”
Kamila pointed out to me the scars along the living room wall of her Prague apartment where, after the end of communism, she and her husband had ripped out the wires the secret police used to bug their home. It turns out that no one in the Benda family uses smartphones or emails. Too risky, they say, even today.
We can respect the purity of her conviction, and willingness to sacrifice for it, but few of us will make the same choice. Can we even afford to? We have made invasive technologies part of our lives in ways that seem impossible to extricate.
The former Harvard business school professor Shoshanna Zuboff calls it “surveillance capitalism” — the moneymaking model pioneered by Google that depends on constant harvesting of data from smartphones, laptops, and other data sources, to figure out how to better sell us things. All of this is perfectly legal, and has been sold to us as consumer convenience. If someone from the National Security Agency showed up at your front door and told you that they were going to install a speaker connected to the Internet that would listen to your family’s conversations, you would turn white with horror. But tens of millions of Americans have paid to have smart speakers put into their houses in the name of making their lives easier.
Corporations now have the data to identify your politics, your religious views, your friends, and so forth. If they decide that you are a deplorable person not worth doing business with, they have the data to prove it, even if you have been careful about your actual words.
It’s not only corporations. In 2013, Edward Snowden, the renegade National Security Agency analyst, revealed that the US federal government’s spying was vastly greater than previously known. In his 2019 memoir, Permanent Record, Snowden writes of learning that the US government was developing the capacity of an eternal law-enforcement agency. At any time, the government could dig through the past communications of anyone it wanted to victimize in search of a crime (and everybody’s communications contain evidence of something). At any point, for all perpetuity, any new administration — any future rogue head of the NSA — could just show up to work and, as easily as flicking a switch, instantly track everybody with a phone or a computer, know who they were, where they were, what they were doing with whom, and what they had ever done in the past.
Understand what this means: your private digital life belongs to the State, and always will. For the time being, we have laws and practices that prevent the government from using that information against individuals, unless it suspects they are involved in terrorism, criminal activity, or espionage. But over and over dissidents told me that the law is not a reliable refuge: if the government is determined to take you out, it will manufacture a crime from the data it has captured, or otherwise deploy it to destroy your reputation.
What we are heading for is an American version of China’s social credit system. In China, the state has mastered a techno-totalitarianism of which Mao Zedong could only have dreamed. The Chinese are using the data-gathering capabilities of smartphones, laptops, and closed-circuit cameras, analyzing patterns with artificial intelligence, and giving each citizen a “social credit score” that determines their access to the economy and society.
You get a high ranking if the state’s algorithms notice that you have done things like download the speeches of Xi Jinping, and only socialize with other respectable citizens. Your ranking tanks if the data show that you have been to church, or spent time in the presence of deplorables. If you have a high social credit score, you are free to go to the best restaurants, get the best apartments, send your kids to the most prestigious universities, and so forth. If you don’t, you are banished to the margins — and in some cases, cut off from the economic system entirely (which is becoming much easier in China, as it moves quickly to a cashless economy).
We already have the technological infrastructure in the United States to implement a social credit system. What the controllers have not yet manufactured is the consent of the governed. But that is changing, especially with the younger generations.
So what do we do? The first step is to wake up to the danger, and to cast aside our complacency. In 1943, a Croatian priest named Tomislav Kolakovic escaped the Gestapo, and took refuge in Bratislava, the capital of Slovakia. Father Kolakovic began teaching in the Catholic university there, and told his students that after the Germans were defeated, the Soviets would rule their country. The Communists would come after the Church, he said — and he meant to get the young people ready for resistance, while they still had the freedom to strategize.
Slovak bishops chastised Father Kolakovic, saying that he was being alarmist. The priest didn’t listen to them. He knew the Communist mind, because he had studied it to prepare for missionary work in the Soviet Union. Father Kolakovic’s young followers came together in cells scattered across the country to pray, to discuss what was happening in their country, and to lay out plans of action. His method was a simple one: See, Judge, Act. That is, open your eyes to what is really happening in your country, come together to discern the meaning, and what you are all called to do to respond to it — then do it.
In 1948, Czech Communists staged a putsch. Shortly after, they began to persecute the Church, just as Father Kolakovic, who had expelled from the country two years earlier, had prophesied. The network the visionary priest built became the backbone of the underground church, and the only meaningful opposition to totalitarianism for the next forty years.
We are in a Kolakovic Moment in the United States. Those with eyes to see, let them see. Then judge, then act. But the first thing to do is see.
Adapted from “Live Not by Lies: A Manual for Christian Dissidents” by Rod Dreher (Sentinel, 2020)