Damn, Why Aren’t Our Moral Compasses Working?

But Jesus called them unto him, and said, Suffer little children to come unto me, and forbid them not: for of such is the kingdom of God. Verily I say unto you, Whosoever shall not receive the kingdom of God as a little child shall in no wise enter therein.” Matthew 19, 13-14.


Wendy Brown, the swashbuckling political theorist from UC Berkeley, has a hifaultin theory on how we as a culture have arrived at a point where Greg Abbott, the Governor of Texas, can dump immigrant children on the street in sub-freezing temperatures on Christmas Eve, the next day tweet Christmas blandishments, and suffer no pangs of conscience (and nary a word of censure from mainstream Republicans who claim to be followers of Jesus).

Brown’s theory is complicated, somewhat “over my head,” but worth thinking about, so I thought I’d take a stab at explaining a simplified version as I understand it.

She begins with Nietzsche’s contention that nihilism begins “with the rise of reason and science as challenges to God and other forms of authority, challenges that reveal all meaning to be constructed and all facts to be without inherent meaning.”[1]

In other words, God’s edicts were set in stone; the winds of time have effaced them. Science is not set in stone; it is self-correcting. For example, quarks have replaced electrons as the tiniest bits of matter. Relativity sets in and begets argumentum ad ignorantiam taunts that “you can’t prove it.” Anything that you believe, I can not believe better.

“Unmoored from their foundations,” in an arena of disenchantment and desacralization, “the Christian virtues along with democracy, equity, truth, reason and accountability […] become fungible, superficial and easily instrumentalized.”

Brown offers these examples:

“When a Martin Luther King Jr. speech about public service is used to advertise Dodge trucks during the Super Bowl, when Catholic clergy are revealed to have molested thousands of children while their superiors looked away, when ‘moral values’ politicians are exposed for consorting with prostitutes or making abortion payments for mistresses— these things bring not shock, but a knowing grimace, nihilism’s signature.”

In her view, unwittingly, neoliberalism has created a Frankenstein’s monster by monetizing every aspect of life in the West. “As we all become human capital,” she writes, “all the way down and all the way in, neoliberalism makes selling one’s soul quotidian, rather than scandalous. And it reduces the remains of virtue to branding, for capital large and small.”

Thus, the heavy repression of Christian values, especially the repression of sexuality, becomes, to use Herbert Marcuse’s term, “desublimated,” and capitalist culture subsumes pleasure.

Just do it, Nike says, as opposed to Yahweh’s thou shall not.

“Pleasure, instead of being an insurrectionary challenge to the drudgery and exploitation of labor, becomes capital’s tool and generates submission.  Far from dangerous or oppositional, no longer sequestered in aesthetics or utopian fantasy, pleasure becomes part of the machinery.”

Brown further argues that “as late capitalist desublimation relaxes demands against the instincts, but does not free the subject for self-direction, demands for intellection are substantially relaxed. Free, stupid, manipulable, absorbed by if not addicted to trivial stimuli and gratifications, the subject of repressive desublimation in advanced capitalist society is not just libidinally unbound, released to enjoy more pleasure, but released from more general expectations of social conscience and social comprehension.”

Values, no longer byproducts of the Divine, have been devalued, which leads to the weakening of conscience, not only conscience concerning individual misdeeds but also conscience concerning the misdeeds of our tribe, especially when these misdeeds are waged against “Others” and “Outsiders.”

So rather than outrage from evangelicals over Abbott’s performative cruelty, we get chuckles.

I’ll give Brown the last word.

Bringing Marcuse’s version together with Nietzsche’s, the historically specific nihilistic depletion of conscience and desublimation of the will to power perhaps explains several things. To begin with, it may animate what is commonly called a resurgence of tribalism, but is better framed as a broken relation to the world demographically outside and temporally after one’s own. It may be the decoding key for Melania Trump’s infamous “I really don’t care, do u?” emblazoned Zara jacket worn on her visit to migrant children separated from their parents at the Texas border. It may explain the routinized mocking, on rightwing websites and in comments sections, of “libtard” concern with human suffering, injustice, or ecological devastation.

Happy New Year!


[1]  All quotes are from Wendy Brown’s In the Ruins of Neoliberalism: The Rise of Antidemocratic Politics in the West.

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