Democalypse Now: Unveiling our Chances
What, no more apocalypse? Has the dramatic lurch into catastrophe—white supremacist mobilization, COVID-19, climate denialism—suddenly petered out? Its causes and its supporters aren’t disappearing; their idol Trump wasn’t convicted. But they can no longer claim sovereign superpower. And yet: the roaring red Beast of the Apocalypse has hardly been superseded by the utopic New Jerusalem.
Where does that leave American progressives? Most of us admit our relief that Trump, the “aspirational fascist,” triumphed in neither election nor insurrection. Even the radical philosopher Cornel West had made clear he would vote for “the mediocre, milquetoast neoliberal centrist because he’s better than fascism. . .” That pretty much echoed my view at the time.
But since the Inauguration, haven’t we been taken off guard—a bit begrudgingly—by how much better Biden’s first moves have been? So how shall we now orient our (apocalyptically edged) longtime critique of Biden’s (decidedly anti-apocalyptic) economic and social “moderation”? It did enable the coalition that removed Trump from the White House. Should we now resort to a purer radicalism, or go compromisingly along with moderate Biden for a definitely improved political ride?
Neither, I would suggest. What if instead we recognize the current moment of post-electoral politics as true apocalypse? Apokalypsis in the original sense of “unveiling.” Not the End, not closure, but disclosure of new beginnings—real chances for change amidst and beyond catastrophe.
This is a moment when the Trumpocalypse of eco-social calamity can be revealed for what it is: not an exceptional perversion but an extreme exemplification of a longstanding pattern. Its sloshy modern meld of neoliberal capitalism and liberal individualism now comes flanked by a fully revealed white supremacism and a never hidden human supremacism. These liberalisms and supremacisms resist autocratic power—“don’t tread on me”—until they get to do the treading (on less powerful people and on the planet).
As I narrate its pattern in Facing Apocalypse: Climate, Democracy and Other Last Chances, this sloshy meld carries a deep history. The pattern was recognized already in the original Book of Revelation, which revealed the supersystem of the beast of Roman state power “fornicating” with the porn queen of the Apocalypse, the “Great Whore”—an embodiment of global commerce in Roman imperial luxury products (Revelation 18: 11ff). The liaison of beast and whore, of political power partnered with global economics, leads to imperial collapse. It culminates in a lethal planetary spiral of human and environmental breakdown spiked by violence and plague.
Yet in the Book of Revelation, collapse does not lead to the End of the World—just of that world, that Empire that subjected Jews and Jewish followers of Jesus (like John of Patmos, author of Revelation) to colonial rule and abuse. What follows is not human extinction but a terrestrial possibility nicknamed the New Jerusalem, the eco-socially just and renewed new city, center of a distinct international polity. This brief utopian vision has sparkled through every attempt to create just and sustainable common life.
We find ourselves far from utopia at this moment, as did the first readers of John’s Apocalypse. Like them, we find ourselves in the apocalyptic pain of unrealized possibilities. Like them, we have had and still have collective crisis along with the threat of future catastrophes of mounting planetary proportions. This moment of COVID-19 and climate change has “revealed” profound inequities in our class and racial structures. New variants of the virus may deliver new intensities of suffering, of economic desperation, of right-wing mobilization. And the globe will not cease to warm. This future is dense with shadows. “’Woe, woe, woe,’” cried the eagle “to the inhabitants of the earth”—all of them, human and nonhuman (Revelation 8:13).
But the grief of these woes has been a public wake-up call. We know that, once the pandemic is “over,” we can surrender to the urge to go back to “normal.” But that will quickly intensify the “new abnormal” of climate change. Yes, levels of consumption and particularly of air travel will rise again. But perhaps the pause will have been long enough to instill new habits, enabling better choices. We may fly, but less. We may find in Zoom not just the Orwellian threat of surveillance and disembodiment but ongoing networks of far-flung communication and solidarity. Enough of us might heed the chances of serious change that are revealing themselves amidst the chaos of this period.
The signs are coming thick and fast. From Day One, Biden’s climate orders and appointments have been startlingly strong. His economic policy shifts have been unexpectedly “far-reaching”. New possibilities of local leadership are popping up. These are unexpectedly fresh and promising steps. To dismiss any of this as transient delusion or sunny optimism would be to participate in a self-fulfilling prophecy of cynicism and demise.
Of course there will be set-backs, disappointments, reactions. But the more we sink to cynicism, the more we participate in the inertia that yields to the world’s degradation. Then the left-purity of nihilism mirrors right-wing denialism. Both are an excuse to do nothing for planetary healing. Both yield to a pseudo-apocalypse of mere world-end. No revelation of new world-possibilities.
The alternative to political nihilism would not be a mere pragmatism of compromise. That would also forfeit possibilities for a better national and planetary life. The new administration needs not only support but positive pressure. That is, sometimes it will require activist pushes for greater and faster action on climate, on race, on economic justice.
For the priorities already in place can be undermined by a myriad of forces: predictable conservative pushback, too much demand for moderation, and too little energy from the progressive base. COVID-19 mutants might create levels of crisis that can be weaponized against Biden. More insidiously, neoliberalism will reassert its non-Trumpian globalism as partner of democratic “liberalism.” The ancient porn-apocalyptic voracity for consumption may get a post-pandemic recharge. The sheer too-muchness of climate deadlines might daunt the best-intended policy makers.
Can we keep cynicism, radical purity, old habits of consumption, and the machine of the status quo from dimming the revelation? Or are we doomed to miss the chance for change—I will refrain from saying “last chance”?
Positive pressure from activist movements will not work as mere resistance. Effective critique will require creativity beyond negativity: persistence from transformative communities and insistence in public teaching. With its apocalyptic-revelatory edge, such pressure can make the difference—not between The End and Utopia but between the spiral of doom and the repair of the world, tikkun olam.
So it is not a matter of pitting optimism against pessimism but of mobilizing hope—unfashionable, critical, enlivening—against both nihilism and denialism. A “hope draped in black” enables both the needed mourning and the still possible transforming. Possible, not guaranteed, not even probable. Freed from complacency, despair, and deferral, hope gets to work. It unveils what we each and all can and together therefore must materialize. Democalypse now!
Catherine Keller is George T. Cobb Professor of Constructive Theology in The Graduate Division of Religion of Drew University. She teaches and lectures across a broad spectrum of pluralist, ecofeminist, process, and political theology. Facing Apocalypse: Climate, Democracy and Other Last Chances will be out in April. Other books include: From a Broken Web; Apocalypse Now & Then: a Feminist Approach to the End of the World; God & Power; Face of the Deep: a Theology of Becoming; On the Mystery; Cloud of the Impossible: Negative Theology and Planetary Entanglement; and Political Theology of the Earth: Our Planetary Emergency and the Struggle for a New Public. She has co-edited several volumes of the Drew Transdisciplinary Theological Colloquium, most recently Entangled Worlds: Religion, Science and the New Materialism.
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