What evangelicals and blue hair have in common

Rebellious urges are healthy, but there are outlets for them that can change the world around us.

Say what you will about Karl Marx, at least one thing about his thinking is incontrovertibly true: Marx had a deep and prescient appreciation for what Joseph Schumpeter would later call the “creative destruction” of capitalism.

Take these two frequently quoted sentences from “The Communist Manifesto”: “Constant revolutionizing of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones. All fixed, fast, frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify.”

Even if Barry Goldwater, Ayn Rand and F.A. Hayek make you really hott (that’s right, with two “T”s), you still have to give Marx credit for understanding better than his contemporaries the transformative power of global capitalism. Those 157-year-old sentences are truer today than they’ve ever been.

How so? Well, for one thing, the majority of the world’s population is being forcibly uprooted because of shifts in the global economy. For all the talk about how much “freedom” the global free market offers, the market sure has a tendency to coerce people into moving places they’d prefer not to go: Just look at the millions of immigrants who have been forced by economic conditions to move (often illegally) to the United States, for instance.

More striking, though, is the fact that very soon – for the first time in history – there will be more people living in cities than rural areas. For example, thousands of people move to Lagos, Nigeria, every month. No one knows how big the city is (estimates range from 6 million to 10 million). Also, Lagos is only part of a shanty-town megalopolis of 70 million people that starts in Abidjan in the Ivory Coast and ends in the Ibadan, Nigeria.

This new phase of urbanization is different from its predecessors.

People uprooting their lives and taking huge risks need something to believe in. In the past, the impoverished, newly urbanized masses tended to become more radical and secular – often embracing anarchism, socialism or communism. Today’s counterpart masses are embracing evangelical Christianity at a staggering rate. Historically, Catholic Guatemala, whose rural population is quickly urbanizing, is now approximately 40 percent Protestant and “primarily evangelical,” according to the U.S. Department of State.

The evangelical sales pitch can be summed up in two words: self-control. Evangelicals view the world as corrupt and evil – and unchangeable (except, of course, through supernatural intervention). The “solution” evangelicals offer is to separate themselves from the world by refusing its temptations. There’s a better life in the next world; not this one, and the way to get there is to stop drinking, stop having sex, stop dancing, stop using drugs, stop listening to secular music, etc.

It’s understandable why so many unthinkably desperate and poor people worldwide are finding this message appealing. First, (and probably foremost) the grassroots leftist organizers have disappeared. Second, the personal change that evangelical Christianity emphasizes is much easier to accomplish than deep political, social and economic change. Dedicating yourself to radical political, social and economic change means you probably won’t live to see the end results of your efforts; it means you might find yourself beat-up, imprisoned or shot.

“Finding Jesus” and getting “born again” takes a couple minutes – it’s as easy as it is futile – and in most of the world there’s little to no personal risk involved. Plus, (bosses love this part) the individualistic evangelical worldview, which teaches rejection of social evils through self-change rather than political change, creates obedient little worker bees.

Who are the U.S. counterparts to these destitute Third-World, slum-dwelling evangelicals? One thing’s for sure: They’re not your typical, suburban, evangelical, mega-church members.

You’ve probably seen the U.S. analogue of the Third-World evangelical (inasmuch as there can even be one) on campus: the blue-haired kid staring blankly out the Campus Connector, or the hipster girl with a fashion mullet text-messaging her boyfriend while she smokes a Parliament outside Coffman Union Ö

You know who I’m talking about Ö These people are practicing what might be called “microresistance”: Like Third-World evangelicals, they’re disappointed by contemporary society and they feel an urge to rebel against it. Rebellious urges are good and ought to be nurtured, but they can also be (and usually are) channeled in ineffectual directions – namely individualistic ones, such as “self-expression” or, as the evangelicals preach, “self-control.” Also like Third-World evangelicals, many of these “nonconformists” have decided to forgo working for radical political, social and economic change in favor of radically distinguishing themselves from everyone else through fashion – it’s much easier (and cooler, besides).

In the developed world, your personal identity is largely constituted by the products you consume – what magazines you read, what kind of music you listen to, what your clothes look like, etc. Being open about your taste for, say, the leather scene, might scare many people at the Mall of America, but there’s nothing inherently subversive about it because – like everybody else – you’re expressing your identity through consumption.

Political, social and economic change only happens when people organize, work together and realize the struggle is a long-term one. Individualistic, “counter-cultural” messages – be they evangelical Christianity or fashion contrarianism – present no challenge to the political, social and economic order, but perpetuate it in their own way. A weird haircut never liberated anyone.

Nick Woomer welcomes comments at [email protected]