by Holly A. Case
Robi and I were speaking Hungarian. "Should we ask our new neighbor the Enlightenment question?" I asked. Robi nodded noncommittally as the neighbor picked up his smartphone. I laid out what could happen: one, the conversation could be short and awkward, two, it could be long and superficial, three, it could be long and not superficial. The likelihood of one or two was very high, I submitted. Robi nodded, unimpressed, and deepened the awkward silence.
"Excuse me. Do you mind if I ask whether you have any views on the Enlightenment?"
"What do you mean?"
"The Enlightenment…18th century, Voltaire, Kant…"
"Yes. What about it?"
"We were discussing the Enlightenment's separation of moral systems from God," I explained. "Pluses and minuses," I added, trying not to poison the well.
"Good or bad, it had to happen," said our neighbor, with an accent now identifiable as Spanish. "It's evolution."
From there we moved to ideas about history, evolution and perpetual struggle versus socialism and the promise of an ultimate end to history, and about the replacement of God with ideology. After getting unfruitfully hung up on Nietzsche for a moment, we agreed that we were living in a post-ideological era.
"Capitalism is the new god," said the man, who by then had a bowl of pasta in front of him. Capitalism wants everything to flow; it abhors barriers, he continued.
We took issue. If capitalism is a god, how come no one is ever willing to sacrifice themselves for capitalism? Lots of people died for gods and ideologies, and both placed heavy demands for self-sacrifice.
"But people sacrifice themselves for capitalism all the time," he rebutted.
"But not explicitly," I protested. "Who ever said ‘Long live capitalism!' on a scaffold or before a firing squad?"
"Perhaps that's because we are implicated it in it. In capitalism, we are both the dictator and the oppressed."
"Like anorexia," I added, the disease of the 1980s that might have told us where we are if we could have read the signs. What is anorexia but an internalization of the two roles: dictator and oppressed? Or at the cellular level cancer…