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Mom left swiftly in the middle of the night, with men I had seen before. They were always in front of our modest home. Their vehicle ceased to be inconspicuous long ago, but now Mom had argued with them, and I was a terrified eight-year-old. Is Mom coming back? That night she returned and we did not see the men for a while, but we always sensed that they were closeby.
Many years later I found that they were FBI agents, following my father. I hated them. I blamed them for the poverty that surrounded us, the poverty that resulted from a society in transition from a backward, agricultural system to a more industrial one. I hated them for the troubled marriage between Mom and Dad, as she was in love with him while he seemed to be in love with revolution. The FBI was there on that night because we were a committed Marxist-Leninist family. That was part of my life as a red-diaper baby.1
The dreams of past beliefs
Our poverty was not fate but an imposition of a rigged system, one that kept us looking toward heaven while the capitalists were having a good time here on earth, as my dad used to say. The system we suffered reflected the nature of inexorable historical forces in dialectical motion. Our little Puerto Rican socialist party was at the center of events with universal implications. One day, our flag would fly victorious over the ruins of the old order, heralding the great Valhalla to come. Liberation from the shadows of the momentary unenlightened synthesis of history was imminent. Or so we believed.
We also believed that only by accepting that belonging to a social class defines identity could we come to understand our condition. We needed radical change, a collective effort that used us as faithful drops in the great wave of revolution. The effort was collective, as only the group could change the ideas, patterns of thought and modes of production arising from a system that determined everything. Meaning, purpose, and dignity resided in the wave of revolution, apart from which we were nothing more than curious accumulations of atoms destined to nothingness. I thought of myself as anything but unique and irreplaceable, and denied my moral capacity for self-realization. I did not perceive myself as intrinsically invested with the capacities of reason and volition that make me a subject with purpose, an engine of wealth creation. Only a drop in a wave …
From that perspective, we were informed by a radical skepticism about the notion of progress, human possibilities, and the role of the individual in transcending his reality. A sort of pervasive pessimism informed our thought about a system we perceived to have been forcefully contrived to serve the powerful. Today, the old-guard, orthodox Marxism-Leninism that guided my earlier upbringing seems to have run its course. Its assumptions, however, remain. Instead of a final conflagration, what has ensued is a steady stream of slight neo-Marxist cuts into the bleeding body of liberal society. From demolishing the capitalist system, we have moved to deconstruct the “Enlightenment project.” That is, we are expected to serve as catalyzing agents of the sudden rupture ushering in a new episteme, to use Foucault’s terminology.2
Although new forms of radicalism grew out of a disillusionment with orthodox Marxism, they retained its thrust toward activism and the belief that oppression brings alienation through the exercise of power. These new radicalisms have been deeply influential in culture, activism, education, and scholarship. In their disillusionment, these new forms of radicalism engendered other schools of thought, especially feminism, post-colonialism, and post-modernism.3
In a twist, there is now a desire to return to the younger Marx, the more Hegelian Marx, the Marx less interested in supposed scientific and inexorable historical processes and more interested in the question of ideas and identity. But not to the point of the postmodern erasure of identity or its elitist, academic attitude of nihilistic despair at the state of existence. Rather, this ends in a lack of a political solution. The postmodern critique has been infused with a tool for action, a new praxis, where identity is the weapon. Nihilistic despair by itself is inadequate. Identity, now collectivized and expanded into multiple dimensions, serves as the engine for social action under a new designation, that of “social justice.” As power and knowledge determine social reality, identitarian activism is the new sacrament conveying the indelible mark of authentic revolutionary zeal. The new “liberationist paradigm” is being internalized by the whole of Western culture. Its task of separating identity from biology remains, but identity is now seen as formed against the backdrop of oppressive social constructs, such as knowledge, language, and power, exploited by the powerful.4
Culture has become the great battlefront. Capitalism is regarded as the great enemy of true progress, the soul of the new social strictures. We remain coded within that system’s power dynamics and can operate freely only within the constraints of the assumptions, processes, and institutions of capitalism. In the new maze of this radical understanding of society, the individual remains a great obstacle to its transformation.
Old certainties turned upside down
Abandoning this project and returning to the person, conceived as unique and irreplaceable, with the imago Dei imprinted in every cell, is a major step away from the nightmarish idealism of socialism and its monsters.5 I abandoned them long ago, as I left the Jesuit seminary and journeyed from my island to America, ending up at the University of Southern Mississippi. I had entered the seminary because it was composed almost entirely of radicals with whom I could go to Sandinista Nicaragua to study philosophy and join the revolution. Our voyage to Nicaragua did not materialize after seven Jesuits were murdered in nearby El Salvador. Some of them were going to be my professors. The dream of studying at the feet of the masters of liberation theology dead, there was no desire to continue my seminary life. So, just imagine this young, black, communist kid who hates America landing in Dixie, the heart of capitalism! Coming to America confronted me with a new, unexpected reality, and I had the opportunity to challenge the safe assumptions of my ideology and found it wanting.
That encounter with liberty I experienced is the antidote against radicalism. Although my new home was imperfect, I discovered that I was not a drop, a replaceable component of a faceless mass of humanity. I am a free, volitional, and rational being who is capable of self-determination, not reducible to a mere component. Our task, now, is to help people discover the grandeur of their personal dignity, one that inheres in them, not one bestowed on them by external forces. When we create a context for our uniqueness to express itself, an amazing and undirected process of improvement begins.
Liberty, the sum of all our freedoms, can only come from reaffirming a new anthropology that recognizes our capacity to mine the dirt at our feet and, through the sweat of our brow and the insights of our minds, create value for ourselves and for others. When we create the context of liberty and systems that reflect the rational and volitional nature of every person, the poor discover a universe of possibilities and poverty ceases to be destiny.6 The poor cease to be merely mouths to feed, bodies to be clothed, and problems to be solved. Every small step in this direction opens up a tiny new realm for the possibility of truly autonomous action. The poor, now seen as engines of wealth creation, are capable of surveying the landscape of human needs and wants, and of overcoming poverty by incremental progress.
These engines can create a better state of affairs for all. We must believe this, proclaim it boldly, and teach it widely. Even more importantly, we must help the poor experience this reality through simple and practical projects that position the poor as protagonists of their own development, instead of remaining as scenery in the drama of historical forces outside their control or tokens of our magnanimity. We are not drops in an overpowering wave. We are an ocean of possibilities, each of us an independent point of departure. The bureaucracies of the welfare state are instances of the human desire to reduce the complexity of problems. They attempt to simplify complex human beings, whose strength resides in their complexity. It is easy to count the bags of food handed out to people, to deal with a case number. The welfare state becomes a counterfeit, the “colorless paraphrase of the fundamental category of human action,” 7 as von Mises put it.
When one is cured of the “utopia syndrome,” 8 where social existence is understood as a binary dialectical struggle between the oppressed and the oppressor, one can truly become an agent of change alongside the poor, as they struggle and fight for their lives. The problem with socialism and other radicalisms and the main reason for my abandonment of that ideology is not that the doctrine fell into impure hands; it is that these ideologies misunderstand the human person. As our society was saturated with a false anthropology, it began to see more money, better government programs and more “experts” ensconced in compassionate bureaucracies as the solutions to poverty. But the creation of spaces for human action, especially through entrepreneurial initiatives of young people, can better serve the enrichment of the poor, because the palpable realization of their potential confirms the fact that each person is a unique and irreplaceable sea of possibilities.
For the full autobiographical sketch see Ismael Hernandez, Not Tragically Colored: Freedom, Personhood, and the Renewal of Black America (Grand Rapids, MI: Acton Institute, 2016), chap. 1. ↩
For Foucault, the episteme is a sudden rupture in knowledge validation that de-emphasizes the role of the individual. Impersonal forces are at the base of history. Unconscious factors are the key ones in explaining historical ruptures. Paradigms are conscious. Epistemes are not. There is much of Foucault’s ideas in the concept of systemic racism. See Michel Foucault, The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences (New York: Pantheon Books, 1970), 183. ↩
For various examples of the feminist radicalism in scholarship see Micheline Malson et al., eds., Black Women in America: Social Science Perspectives (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988). ↩
See Helen Pluckrose and James Lindsay, Cynical Theories: How Activist Scholarship Made Everything about Race, Gender, and Identity (Durham, North Carolina: Pitchstone, 2020), 49–50. ↩
For a brief review of the concept of imago Dei and personalism see Stephen Grabill et al., Human Nature and the Discipline of Economics: Personalist Anthropology and Economic Methodology (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2002), chap. 1. ↩
See Michael Novak, The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism (New York, Touchstone, 1982) section 1. ↩
Ludwig von Mises, Human Action: A Treatise in Economics (San Francisco: Fox & Wilkes, 1996 ) p. 833. ↩
See Paul Watzlawick, et al., Change: Principles of Problem Formation and Problem Resolution (New York: W.W. Norton, 1974), chap. 5. ↩