Sunday, April 19, 2009

The fight is on to save the commons of human society

The Memory Bank A New Commonwealth — Ver 4.0
Home About Keith Hart Curriculum vitae List of Publications Papers Miscellany The Book Prologue — Alvin 1. Money in the Making of Humanity 2. The Machine Revolution Today 3. Capitalism: Making Money with Money 4. Capitalism: The Political Economy of Development 5. The Market from a Humanist Point of View 6. The Changing Character of Money 7. The Future of Money and the Market Acknowledgements Reviews of the Book Forum Press Contact « Alternative currencies at Limehouse 2005 Conversations with Abdul Aziz 6 »

Notes on the counter-revolution 13 November 2008, 2:22 am
The period since 1945 saw a revolution in world society which, by the 1990s, had turned into widespread popular emancipation from the repressive state controls installed during the Cold War. The world was becoming more connected and more unequal at the same time, but people in general enjoyed more freedom than ever before. Since the millennium, an attempt has been made, led by but not restricted to the United States, to screw the lid back on. The battle cry of this counter-revolution is the war against terrorism, its theme-song, security, security and yet again security. Freedoms that came to be taken for granted after the war against fascism are now being lost. The left is disoriented and impotent. Who is the enemy and what is to be done? The fragments below reflect the confusion of our era, but they do point to a possible political strategy. They were written in two places at different times, in Europe and in America.
We are connected at last, humanity that is. World society is a reality. It has come home to roost in America. The reduction of the World Trade Centre to rubble marked this in the most vivid way possible. The world is one. Boom. That unity is violent. Boom. The sudden shock of recognition that America is in the world, not apart from it. The curious thing about the first decade after the Cold War is that, even as America took over the world, Americans, who come from all over the world, became more insular, more separated from it than before. John Locke once wrote, ‘In the beginning all the world was America’, meaning in a state of nature. Well, now all of our world is America again, but this time it reflects the age of money and unequal property that succeeded the state of nature in Locke’s scheme. The task of establishing civil government, successor to the age of money, awaits us.
After the catastrophe, a time for rationality. But reason works better backwards than forwards. Rationalization of the past is more effective than attempts to project a rational future. Today’s terrorism has a specific origin in the covert operations of the US government under Reagan during the 80s. Following the defeat in Vietnam, the Americans fought the Cold War through Third World proxies trained to use terror as a means of subduing civilian populations: in ex-Portuguese Africa, Unita and Renamo (supported by the outlaw South African regime); in Central America, the Contras; in Afghanistan, the Mujaheddin and, as we all now know, Osama bin Laden. Meanwhile, the structural adjustment policies of the World Bank and the IMF opened up the rest to the predations of corporate capital and to the drain of debt interest. When the Berlin Wall fell, Bush the Elder orchestrated the Gulf War for domestic consumption by television and then everything went quiet for a decade. The interventions in former Yugoslavia were minor policing operations in comparison. The Clinton years, in retrospect, now seem like a belle époque. Wall Street contrived the biggest boom in economic history, the internet connected us in a single network and the last checks on American military power evaporated. The bobos of Manhattan turned inwards to enjoy life at the centre of the world, while the rest of America was absorbed in itself. The cracks in all this were already beginning to show principally as a collapse of internet stocks and then of the telecoms boom when Hollywood’s perennial images of spectacular destruction were enacted for real on September 11th.

So now we have an unlimited war on terrorism, waged against the same Islamic fundamentalism that the CIA once encouraged in the Mujaheddin. This Republican regime relishes the opportunity to range worldwide without consultation and without even paying lip service to international law. After 1945, the USA decided to build up Western Europe and Japan as its junior partners in a new project of collective empire. The rules of this collective were set by the American reaction to Suez: the appearance of joint decision-making and participation, but only one active policeman allowed. This was supposed to be different from the European imperialism whose replacement by nation-states was supervised by Woodrow Wilson at Versailles. It is celebrated as such by Hardt and Negri in their bestseller, Empire. It was established practice as recently as Kosovo. Yet now American columnists boast of their country’s freedom to act as it likes, a freedom prepared for by countless international treaties left unsigned. At home, Bush the Younger’s appeals to ‘the nation’ have produced a stampede to conform; anti-terrorist legislation and judicial practice promise to overthrow hard-won civil liberties; and Americans try to come to terms with estrangement from a world that resents their careless wealth and unfettered power. In the name of anti-terrorism, the satellite governments introduce their own versions of internal repression; border controls and surveillance in general are stepped up; and, while only the British have volunteered to be the Yankee imperial bag-carrier, no-one else has mustered serious criticism of the Americans’ conduct of the Afghan war.
The immediate aftermath of September 11th thus looks like a regression. For some time now, it has seemed that the old corporate bureaucracies were in retreat, when faced with the rise of a global network society. Even the capitalist corporations have gone through a frenzy of downsizing and outsourcing during the last decade in a drive to take on a more flexible network form. State capitalism, the attempt to manage accumulation and markets through national bureaucracies, has been eroded by a tide of electronic money flowing across borders with virtual impunity, while the ability of corporations to dictate terms to national governments is growing every year. Criminal markets for drugs, arms and bootleg copies of everything dominate trade in much of the world. Now we have seen a band of terrorists, employing the techniques of informal economy and network society, produce the most dramatic public theatre in memory. And how does the Bush regime respond? With B 52s bombing a country into a stone-age to which it had already returned. If the fall of the Berlin Wall was a universal symbol of the people’s triumph over bureaucratic power, this is the counter-revolution, contrived by a ruling elite threatened for a decade by increased freedom of social connection and reduced popular fear of central power. What is new is the unilateral assumption of this function by the American government. We might call it ’state capitalism in one country’. But the rest of the world’s unpopular regimes know that it shores up their own powers of rule, even if they are not being given a token role in the action.
It is convenient for the rulers of our unipolar world to focus attention on cultural politics abstracted from history on the struggle between good and evil, liberal enlightenment and religious bigotry, ‘the American way’ and a recalcitrant Islam. Our task should be to expose the social contradictions that this ideology conceals. For this is a capitalist world and capitalism is not standing still while the media hang breathlessly on every minor development in Afghanistan. What democratic forces are emerging to confront a corporate capitalism whose hegemony has never been more universal than now? This question entails another. How might we break up the idea of a monolithic America, that rhetoric of national unity on which Bush depends for popular support, in order to identify the forces within American society ready to oppose their own government and corporations? This means refusing to equate the US ruling elite with the American people and their instinct for democracy. Knee-jerk anti-Americanism leaves out of the global struggle against neo-liberal capitalism many of the elements that are best placed to play an effective part. We must distinguish between the American state and the American people, even if today in an atmosphere of perceived national crisis many Americans are reluctant to do so. Against Bush’s version of America as lawless world bully and institutional expression of corporate capitalism, there is another living tradition representing America as a self-sufficient federalist democracy, with weak central government, offering a home for the world’s oppressed peoples.

The fight is on to save the commons of human society, culture and ecology from the encroachments of corporate private property. This is no longer principally a question of conserving the earth’s natural resources, although it is definitely that too, nor of the deterioration of public services left to the mercies of privatized agencies. The information age has raised the significance of intangible commodities. Increasingly we buy and sell ideas; and their reproduction is made infinitely easier by digital technologies. Accordingly, the large corporations have launched a campaign to assert their exclusive ownership of what until recently might reasonably have been considered shared culture to which all have free and equal access. Across the board, separate battles are being fought, without any real sense of the common cause that they embody. The napsterization of popular music, harbinger of peer-to-peer exchange between individual computers, is one such battle pitting the feudal barons of the music business against our common right to transmit songs as we wish. The world of visual images, of film, television and video, is likewise a site of struggle sharpened by fast-breaking technologies affecting their distribution and use. In numerous subtle and not-so-subtle ways, our ability to draw freely on a common heritage of language, literature and law is being undermined by the aggressive assertion of copyright. People who never knew they shared a common infrastructure of culture are now being forced to acknowledge it by aggressive policies of corporate privatization. And these policies are being promoted at the international level by the same American government whose armed forces now seem free to run amok in the world.
In the case of the internet, what began as a free communications network for a scientific minority is now the contested domain of giant corporations and governments. The open source software movement, setting Linux and an army of hackers against Microsoft’s monopoly, has opened up fissures within corporate capitalism itself. The shift to manufacture of food varieties has introduced a similar struggle to agriculture, amplified by a revival of ‘organic’ farming in the context of growing public concern about genetic modification. The pharmaceutical companies try to ward off the threat posed to their lucrative monopolies by cheap generics aimed at the Third World populations who need them most. The buzzword is ‘intellectual property rights’, slogan of a corporate capitalism determined to impose antiquated ‘command and control’ methods on world markets whose constitutive governments have been cowed into passivity. The largest demonstrations against the neo-liberal world order, from Seattle to Genoa, have been mobilized to a significant degree by the need to oppose this particular version of global private property. The events of September 11th have temporarily diminished this movement, especially in North America, just as they have added to the powers of coercion at the disposal of governments everywhere. In this sense, the global movement for greater democracy and less inequality has suffered a reverse.
A large proportion of the activists resisting the corporate takeover of world society belong to the western middle classes. This is so whether we are talking about the internet, software, cultural products, food, drugs, pollution, arms control or the exploitation of cheap labour. Europeans make their own distinctive contribution, but many of these movements have their source in America. The Free Software Foundation is American. The American courts tried Microsoft. Napster was an American invention. American farmers are fighting rents imposed on food varieties by corporate monopolists. American consumers resist being made the guinea pigs of drugs companies. Of course, these activities can be and are represented by corporations, their lawyers and political stooges as ‘unAmerican’. But they are an expression of what is best in America, its democracy.
It is a widely shared and justified belief that the age of money, whose culmination we are witnessing today, is not in the interest of most human beings, that the American government and giant corporations (half of them American, a third European) are indifferent to that common interest of humanity. The rest of the world needs Americans to join them in the struggle for decent human standards in social life. They bring tremendous resources of technology, education and economic power to that struggle, but above all they bring their country’s liberal political traditions. It would be a pity if the effect of September 11th was to obscure that possibility of global democratic solidarity, leaving the world stage to Texas oilmen and Muslim fanatics, with their mutual conspiracy to divide and rule.

Why are the most unlikely people, including myself, suddenly talking about God?

March 27, 2009 / Volume CXXXVI, Number 6 ARTICLE Culture & Barbarism
Metaphysics in a Time of Terrorism Terry Eagleton

Why are the most unlikely people, including myself, suddenly talking about God? Who would have expected theology to rear its head once more in the technocratic twenty-first century, almost as surprisingly as some mass revival of Zoroastrianism? Why is it that my local bookshop has suddenly sprouted a section labeled “Atheism,” hosting anti-God manifestos by Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, and others, and might even now be contemplating another marked “Congenital Skeptic with Mild Baptist Leanings”? Why, just as we were confidently moving into a posttheological, postmetaphysical, even posthistorical era, has the God question broken out anew?
Can one simply put it down to falling towers and fanatical Islamists? I don’t really think we can. Certainly the New Atheists’ disdain for religion did not sprout from the ruins of the World Trade Center. While some of the debate took its cue from there, 9/11 was not really about religion, any more than the thirty-year-long conflict in Northern Ireland was over papal infallibility. In fact, radical Islam generally understands exceedingly little about its own religious faith, and there is good evidence to suggest that its actions are, for the most part, politically driven.
That does not mean these actions have no religious impact or significance. Islamic fundamentalism confronts Western civilization with the contradiction between the West’s own need to believe and its chronic incapacity to do so. The West now stands eyeball-to-eyeball with a full-blooded “metaphysical” foe for whom absolute truths and foundations pose no problem at all-and this at just the point when a Western civilization in the throes of late modernity, or postmodernity if you prefer, has to skate by on believing as little as it decently can. In post-Nietzschean spirit, the West appears to be busily undermining its own erstwhile metaphysical foundations with an unholy mélange of practical materialism, political pragmatism, moral and cultural relativism, and philosophical skepticism. All this, so to speak, is the price you pay for affluence.

Advanced capitalism is inherently agnostic. It looks particularly flaccid when its paucity of belief runs up against an excess of the stuff-not only abroad, but domestically too, in the form of various homegrown fundamentalisms. Modern market societies tend to be secular, relativist, pragmatic, and materialistic, qualities that undermine the metaphysical values on which political authority in part depends. And yet capitalism cannot easily dispense with those metaphysical values, even though it has difficulty taking them seriously. (As President Dwight Eisenhower once announced, channeling Groucho Marx, “Our government makes no sense unless it is founded on a deeply felt religious belief-and I don’t care what it is.”) Religious faith in this view is both vital and vacuous. God is ritually invoked on American political platforms, but it would not do to raise him in a committee meeting of the World Bank. In the United States, ideologues of the religious Right, aware of the market’s tendency to oust metaphysics, sought to put those values back in place. Thus does postmodern relativism breed a redneck fundamentalism; those who believe very little rub shoulders with those ready to believe almost anything. With the advent of Islamist terrorism, these contradictions have been dramatically sharpened. It is now more than ever necessary that the people should believe, even as the Western way of life deprives them of much incentive for doing so.
Assured since the fall of the Soviet bloc that it could proceed with impunity to pursue its own global interests, the West overreached itself. Just when ideologies in general seemed to have packed up for good, the United States put them back on the agenda in the form of a peculiarly poisonous brand of neoconservatism. Like characters in some second-rate piece of science fiction, a small cabal of fanatical dogmatists occupied the White House and proceeded to execute their well-laid plans for world sovereignty. It was almost as bizarre as Scientologists taking over 10 Downing Street, or Da Vinci Code buffs patrolling the corridors of the Elysée Palace. The much-trumpeted Death of History, meaning that capitalism was now the only game in town, reflected the arrogance of the West’s project of global domination; and that aggressive project triggered a backlash in the form of radical Islam.
And so the very act of attempting to close history down has sprung it open again. Both at home and globally, economic liberalism rides roughshod over peoples and communities, and in the process triggers just the kind of violent social and cultural backlash that liberalism is least capable of handling. In this sense, too, terrorism highlights certain contradictions endemic to liberal capitalism. We have seen already that pluralistic liberal societies do not so much hold beliefs as believe that people should be allowed freely to hold beliefs. The summum bonum is to leave believers to get on with it unmolested. Such a purely formal or procedural approach to belief necessitates keeping entrenched faiths or identities at a certain ironic arm’s length.
Yet this value-liberal society’s long, unruly, eternally inconclusive argument-also brings vulnerability. A tight national consensus, desirable in the face of external attack, is hard to pull off in liberal democracies, and not least when they turn multicultural. Lukewarmness about belief is likely to prove a handicap when one is confronted with a full-bloodedly metaphysical enemy. The very pluralism you view as an index of your spiritual strength may have a debilitating effect on your political authority, especially against zealots who regard pluralism as a form of intellectual cowardice. The idea, touted in particular by some Americans, that Islamic radicals are envious of Western freedoms is about as convincing as the suggestion that they are secretly hankering to sit in cafés smoking dope and reading Gilles Deleuze.

In the face of the social devastation wreaked by economic liberalism, some besieged groups can feel secure only by clinging to an exclusivist identity or unbending doctrine. And in fact, advanced capitalism has little alternative to offer them. The kind of automated, built-in consent it seeks from its citizens does not depend all that much on what they believe. As long as they get out of bed, roll into work, consume, pay their taxes, and refrain from beating up police officers, what goes on in their heads and hearts is mostly secondary. Advanced capitalism is not the kind of regime that exacts much spiritual commitment from its subjects. Indeed, zeal is more to be feared than encouraged. That is an advantage in “normal” times, since demanding too much belief from men and women can easily backfire. But it is much less a benefit in times of political tumult.
Economic liberalism has generated great tides of global migration, which within the West has given birth to so-called multiculturalism. At its least impressive, multiculturalism blandly embraces difference as such, without looking too closely into what one is differing over. It imagines that there is something inherently positive about having a host of different views on the same subject. Such facile pluralism tends to numb the habit of vigorously contesting other people’s beliefs-of calling them arrant nonsense or unmitigated garbage, for example. This is not the best training ground for taking on people whose beliefs can cave in skulls. One of the more agreeable aspects of Christopher Hitchens’s polemic against religion, God Is Not Great, is its author’s ready willingness to declare that he thinks religion poisonous and disgusting. Perhaps he finds it mildly embarrassing in his new, post-Marxist persona that “Religion is poison” was the slogan under which Mao launched his assault on the people and culture of Tibet. But he is right to stick to his guns even so. Beliefs are not to be respected just because they are beliefs. Societies in which any kind of abrasive criticism constitutes “abuse” clearly have a problem.
That problem encompasses a contradictory fact: the more capitalism flourishes on a global scale, the more multiculturalism threatens to loosen the hold of the nation-state over its subjects. Culture, after all, is what helps power grow roots, interweaving it with our lived experience and thus tightening its grip on us. A power which has to sink roots in many diverse cultures simultaneously is at a signal disadvantage. A British defense think tank recently published a report arguing that a “misplaced deference to multiculturalism” that fails “to lay down the line to immigrant communities” was weakening the fight against political extremists. The problem, the report warned, was one of social fragmentation in a multicultural nation increasingly divided over its history, identity, aims, and values. When it came to the fight against terrorism, the nation’s liberal values, in short, were undermining themselves.
Multiculturalism threatens the existing order not only because it can create a breeding ground for terrorists, but because the political state depends on a reasonably tight cultural consensus. British prime ministers believe in a common culture-but what they mean is that everyone should share their own beliefs so that they won’t end up bombing London Underground stations. The truth, however, is that no cultural belief is ever extended to sizable groups of newcomers without being transformed in the process. This is what a simpleminded philosophy of “integration” fails to recognize. There is no assumption in the White House, Downing Street, or the Elysée Palace that one’s own beliefs might be challenged or changed in the act of being extended to others. A common culture in this view incorporates outsiders into an already established, unquestionable framework of values, leaving them free to practice whichever of their quaint customs pose no threat. Such a policy appropriates newcomers in one sense, while ignoring them in another. It is at once too possessive and too hands-off. A common culture in a more radical sense of the term is not one in which everyone believes the same thing, but one in which everyone has equal status in cooperatively determining a way of life in common.
If this is to include those from cultural traditions that are currently marginal, then the culture we are likely to end up with will be very different from the one we have now. For one thing, it will be more diverse. A culture that results from the active participation of all its members is likely to be more mixed and uneven than a uniform culture that admits new members only on its own terms. In this sense, equality generates difference. It is not a question of mustering a diversity of cultures under the common umbrella of Britishness, but of putting that whole received identity into the melting pot and seeing what might emerge. If the British or American way of life really were to take on board the critique of materialism, hedonism, and individualism made by many devout Muslims, Western civilization would most certainly be altered for the good. This is a rather different vision from the kind of multiculturalism that leaves Muslims and others alone to do their own charmingly esoteric stuff, commending them from a safe distance.
Part of what has happened in our time is that God has shifted over from the side of civilization to the side of barbarism. He is no longer the short-haired, blue-blazered God of the West-well, perhaps he is in the United States, but not in Porto or Cardiff or Bologna. Instead, he is a wrathful, dark-skinned God who, if he did create John Locke and John Stuart Mill, has long since forgotten the fact. One can still speak of the clash between civilization and barbarism; but a more subtle form of the same dispute is to speak of a conflict between civilization and culture. Civilization in this dichotomy means the universal, autonomous, prosperous, individual, rationally speculative, self-doubting, and ironic; culture means the customary, collective, passionate, spontaneous, unreflective, unironic, and a-rational. Culture signifies all those unreflective loyalties and allegiances for which men and women in extreme circumstances are prepared to kill. For the most part, the former colonizing nations are civilizations, while the former colonies are cultures.
Civilization is precious but fragile; culture is raw but potent. Civilizations kill to protect their material interests, whereas cultures kill to defend their identity. These are seeming opposites; yet the pressing reality of our age is that civilization can neither dispense with culture nor easily coexist with it. The more pragmatic and materialistic civilization becomes, the more culture is summoned to fulfill the emotional and psychological needs that it cannot handle-and the more, therefore, the two fall into mutual antagonism. What is meant to mediate universal values to particular times and places ends up turning aggressively against them. Culture is the repressed that returns with a vengeance. Because it is supposed to be more localized, immediate, spontaneous, and a-rational than civilization, it is the more aesthetic concept of the two. The kind of nationalism that seeks to affirm a native culture is always the most poetic kind of politics-the “invention of literary men,” as someone once remarked. You would not have put the great Irish nationalist Padraic Pearse on the sanitation committee.

Religion falls on both sides of this fence simultaneously, which is part of its formidable power. As civilization, religion is doctrine, institution, authority, metaphysical speculation, transcendent truth, choirs, and cathedrals. As culture, it is myth, ritual, savage irrationalism, spontaneous feeling, and the dark gods. Religion in the United States is by and large a civilizational matter, whereas in England it is largely a traditional way of life-more akin to high tea or clog dancing than to socialism or Darwinism-which it would be bad form to take too seriously (the highly English Dawkins is in this respect egregiously un-English). One couldn’t imagine the Queen’s chaplain asking you if you have been washed in the blood of the Lamb. As the Englishman remarked, it’s when religion starts to interfere with your everyday life that it’s time to give it up. Polls reveal that most of the English believe that religion has done more harm than good, an eminently reasonable opinion unlikely to be endorsed in Dallas.
What the champions of civilization rightly hold against culture is its tendency to substitute for rational debate. Just as in some traditionalist societies you can justify what you do on the grounds that your ancestors did it, so for some culturalists you can justify what you do because your culture does it. This seems benign if one is thinking of Iceland, the Azande, or the maritime community, but less so for Hell’s Angels, neofascists, or Scientologists. In his article, “Islam, Islamisms, and the West,” Aijaz Ahmad points out that culture has come in some quarters to mean that one is how one is because of who one is-a doctrine shared by racism. An appeal to culture becomes a way of absolving us to some extent from moral responsibility as well as from rational argument. Just as it is part of their way of life to dig traps for tigers, so it is part of our way of life to manufacture cruise missiles. Postmodern thought is hostile to the idea of foundations; yet in postmodernism, culture becomes the new absolute, conceptual end-stop, the transcendental signifier. Culture is the point at which one’s spade hits rock bottom, the skin out of which one cannot leap, the horizon over which one is unable to peer. This is a strange case to launch at a point in history when Nature, a somewhat passé idea until our attention was recently drawn to its looming devastation, may be on the point of trumping human culture as a whole.
Yet there is a certain sacred resonance to the idea of culture. For several centuries now, after all, it has been proposed as the secular alternative to a failing religious faith. This is not a wholly ridiculous notion. Like religion, culture is a matter of ultimate values, intuitive certainties, hallowed traditions, assured identities, shared beliefs, symbolic action, and a sense of transcendence. It is culture, not religion, that for many men and women today forms the heart of a heartless world. This is true whether one has in mind the idea of culture as literature and the arts, or as a cherished way of life. Most aesthetic concepts are pieces of displaced theology, and the work of art, seen as mysterious, self-dependent, and self-moving, is an image of God for an agnostic age. Yet culture fails as an ersatz religion. Works of art cannot save us. They can simply render us more sensitive to what needs to be repaired. And celebrating culture as a way of life is too parochial a version of redemption.
Some seek to reconcile culture and civilization (or as some might translate these terms, the Germans and the French) by claiming that the values of civilization, though universal, need a local habitation and a name-some sector of the globe that acts as the postal address of human civility itself. And this, of course, has been the West. In this view the West is a civilization, to be sure; but it also the very essence of the thing itself, rather as France is one nation among many, yet also the very essence of the intellect. For those to whom this argument seems supremacist, there exists what seems at first glance a rather less chauvinistic version of it. It is associated with the philosopher Richard Rorty (and, to a lesser extent, with the literary critic Stanley Fish).
Rorty’s kind of argument allows you to acknowledge that Western civilization is indeed a “culture” in the sense of being local and contingent-even as you claim its values are the ones to promote. This means behaving as though your values have all the force of universal ones, while at the same time insulating them from any thoroughgoing critique. They are immune to such critique because you do not claim any rational foundation for them; yours, after all, is just one culture among others. In a bold move, you can abandon a rational defense of your way of life for a culturalist one, even though the price of doing so is leaving it perilously ungrounded. “Culture” and “civilization” here felicitously coincide. The West is most certainly civilized; but since its civility descends to it from its contingent cultural history, there is no need to provide rational grounds for it. One thus wins for oneself the best of both worlds.

Reason alone can face down a barbarous irrationalism, but to do so it must draw upon forces and sources of faith which run deeper than itself, and which can therefore bear an unsettling resemblance to the very irrationalism it is seeking to repel. Such a situation confronted Europe during the Second World War. Would liberal humanism really prove adequate to defeat fascism, a movement which drew from powerfully irrational sources-or could fascism be vanquished only by an antagonist that cut as deep as it did, as socialism claimed to do? The question of reason and its opposite was a major theme of Thomas Mann’s great novel The Magic Mountain. In this work, life and death, affirmation and negation, Eros and Thanatos, the sacred and the obscene, are all interwoven in the conflict between Settembrini, the liberal humanist, and the sinister Naphta, Jesuit, communist, and rebel. Naphta is a full-blooded modernist in satanic revolt against Settembrini’s spirit of liberal bourgeois modernity. An exponent of sacrifice, spiritual absolutism, religious zeal, and the cult of death, he draws his life from the archaic and bloodstained springs of culture, whereas the civilized Settembrini is a sunny-minded champion of reason, progress, liberal values, and the European mind.
There can be no doubt which character in The Magic Mountain our civilized New Atheists such as Hitchens and Dawkins would find congenial, and which they would vilify. The novel itself, however, is a trifle more subtle in its judgments. The Settembrini who celebrates life is actually at death’s door, and the First World War during which the novel is set spells the ruin of his high nineteenth-century hopes. Naphta may be pathologically in love with death, but Settembrini’s buoyant humanism thrives on the repression of it. He cannot stomach the truth that to be human is, among other things, to be sick. Perversity and aberration are constitutive of the human condition, not just irrational deviations from it. It is significant in this respect that nobody in the clinic in which the novel’s action takes place ever seems to be cured.
What the novel’s protagonist, Hans Castorp, comes to recognize is a form of death-in-life which is the way of neither Naphta nor Settembrini. It involves affirming the human humbly, nonhubristically, in the knowledge of its frailty and mortality. This tragic humanism embraces the disruptiveness of death, as Settembrini does not; but, unlike Naphta, it refuses to turn death into a fetish. At the heart of Castorp’s moving utopian vision of love and comradeship in the novel’s great snow scene lurks the horrifying image of a child torn limb from limb, a token of the blood sacrifice that underpins civilization itself. Having been granted this epiphany, Hans will henceforth refuse to let death have mastery over his thoughts. It is love, not reason, he muses, which is stronger than death, and from that alone can flow the sweetness of civilization. Reason in itself is too abstract and impersonal a force to face down death. But such love, to be authentic, must live “always in silent recognition of the blood sacrifice.” One must honor beauty, idealism, and the hunger for progress, while confessing in Marxist or Nietzschean style how much blood and wretchedness lie at their root. Only by bowing to our mortality can we live fulfilled.
If culture can prove no adequate stand-in for religion, neither can it serve as a substitute for politics. The shift from modernity to postmodernity represents in part the belief that culture, not politics, holds center stage. Postmodernism is more perceptive about lifestyles than it is about material interests-better on identity than oil. As such it has an ironic affinity with radical Islam, which also holds that what is ultimately at stake are beliefs and values. I have argued elsewhere that Western postmodernism has some of its roots in the failure of revolutionary politics. In a similar way, Islamic fundamentalism is among other things a virulent response to the defeat of the Muslim Left-a defeat in which the West has actively conspired. In some quarters, the language of religion is replacing the discourse of politics.
If politics has failed to unite the wretched of the earth to transform their condition, we can be sure that culture will not accomplish the task in its stead. Culture, for one thing, is too much a matter of affirming what you are or have been, rather than what you might become. What, then, of religion? To be sure, Christendom once saw itself as a unity of culture and civilization; and if religion has proved far and away the most powerful, tenacious, universal symbolic form humanity has yet to come up with, it is partly on this account. What other symbolic form has managed to forge such direct links between the most absolute and universal of truths and the everyday practices of countless millions of men and women? What other way of life has brought the most rarefied of ideas and the most palpable of human realities into such intimate relationship? Religious faith has established a hotline from personal interiority to transcendent authority-an achievement upon which the advocates of culture can only gaze with envy. Yet religion is as powerless as culture to emancipate the dispossessed. For the most part, it has not the slightest interest in doing so.

With the advent of modernity, culture and civilization were progressively riven, and faith driven increasingly into the private domain, or into the realm of everyday culture, as political sovereignty passed into the hands of the secular state. Along with the other two symbolic domains of art and sexuality, religion was unhooked to some extent from secular power; and the upshot of this privatization for all three symbolic forms was notably double-edged. On the one hand, they could act as precious sources of alternative value, and thus of political critique; on the other hand, their isolation from the public world caused them to become increasingly pathologized.
The prevailing global system, then, today faces an unwelcome choice. Either it trusts its native pragmatism in the face of its enemy’s absolutism, or it falls back on metaphysical values of its own-values that are looking increasingly tarnished and implausible. Does the West need to go full-bloodedly metaphysical to save itself? And if it does, can it do so without inflicting too much damage on its liberal, secular values, thus ensuring there is still something worth protecting from its illiberal opponents?
If Marxism once held out a promise of reconciling culture and civilization, it is partly because its founder was both a Romantic humanist and an heir of Enlightenment rationalism. Marxism is about culture and civilization together-sensuous particularity and universality, worker and citizen of the world, local allegiances and international solidarity, the free self-realization of flesh-and-blood individuals and a global cooperative commonwealth of them. But Marxism has suffered in our time a staggering political rebuff; and one of the places to which those radical impulses have migrated is-of all things-theology. In theology nowadays, one can find some of the most informed and animated discussions of Deleuze and Badiou, Foucault and feminism, Marx and Heidegger. That is not entirely surprising, since theology, however implausible many of its truth claims, is one of the most ambitious theoretical arenas left in an increasingly specialized world-one whose subject is nothing less than the nature and transcendental destiny of humanity itself. These are not issues easily raised in analytic philosophy or political science. Theology’s remoteness from pragmatic questions is an advantage in this respect.
We find ourselves, then, in a most curious situation. In a world in which theology is increasingly part of the problem, it is also fostering the kind of critical reflection which might contribute to some of the answers. There are lessons that the secular Left can learn from religion, for all its atrocities and absurdities; and the Left is not so flush with ideas that it can afford to look such a gift horse in the mouth. But will either side listen to the other at present? Will Christopher Hitchens or Richard Dawkins read this and experience an epiphany that puts the road to Damascus in the shade? To use two theological terms by way of response: not a hope in hell. Positions are too entrenched to permit such a dialogue. Mutual understanding cannot happen just anywhere, as some liberals tend to suppose. It requires its material conditions. And it seems unlikely these will emerge as long as the so-called war on terror continues to run its course.
The distinction between Hitchens or Dawkins and those like myself comes down in the end to one between liberal humanism and tragic humanism. There are those who hold that if we can only shake off a poisonous legacy of myth and superstition, we can be free. Such a hope in my own view is itself a myth, though a generous-spirited one. Tragic humanism shares liberal humanism’s vision of the free flourishing of humanity, but holds that attaining it is possible only by confronting the very worst. The only affirmation of humanity ultimately worth having is one that, like the disillusioned post-Restoration Milton, seriously wonders whether humanity is worth saving in the first place, and understands Swift’s king of Brobdingnag with his vision of the human species as an odious race of vermin. Tragic humanism, whether in its socialist, Christian, or psychoanalytic varieties, holds that only by a process of self-dispossession and radical remaking can humanity come into its own. There are no guarantees that such a transfigured future will ever be born. But it might arrive a little earlier if liberal dogmatists, doctrinaire flag-wavers for Progress, and Islamophobic intellectuals got out of its way.

e-mail this story format for printing ABOUT THE WRITER Terry Eagleton Terry Eagleton is the author of many books, including Literary Theory and The Gatekeeper: A Memoir. This essay is excerpted from Reason, Faith, and Revolution: Reflections on the God Debate by Terry Eagleton, to be published April 21, 2009, by Yale University Press. Copyright © 2009 by Terry Eagleton. Reprinted with permission. Funding for this article has been provided by a grant from the Henry Luce Foundation. Culture & Barbarism by Terry Eagleton
Commonweal 475 Riverside Drive, Rm. 405, NY, NY 10115 212 662 4200 Privacy Policy Help/FAQ Copyright © 2009 Commonweal Foundation

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Fundamentalists crave certainty and reject complexity

Overview Introduction Integral Yoga Sri Aurobindo The Mother Sitemap Fundamentalism Juergensmeyer An-Na'im Lifton Issues Reviews Annotated Documents Further Documents Standpoints Letters Bio Data Integral Yoga Sri Aurobindo The Mother
Feedback about this site may be posted in the comments section to the Announcement of this site at SCIY (login required). Introduction Fundamentalism

Most "fundamentalisms" involve special forms of identity politics, meaning, and labeling, characterized by a quest for certainty, exclusiveness, and unambiguous boundaries, where the "Other" is the enemy demonized. It also reflects a mind-set uncompromising and antirelativist, as one response to the openness and uncertainties of a cosmopolitan world, and [tries] to chart a morally black and white path out of the gray zones of intimidating cultural and religious complexity. — Judith Nagata, Beyond Theology: Towards an Anthropology of ‘Fundamentalism’ (2001), page 481.

Fundamentalism in the broader sense
The reactionary form of religion that is now known as Fundamentalism has its roots in the ancient past, but the term itself is less than a hundred years old. “Fundamentalism” was first applied to a movement within Protestant Christianity that called for a return to the perceived “fundamentals” of Protestant belief, in particular the “inerrancy” or literal truth of the Bible.

Before 1980, the term “fundamentalism” was hardly used outside this Christian context. An occasional historian or social scientist extended the scope of the term to include reactionary movements within Islam, Hinduism, and other religions, but it was not until after the Iranian revolution of 1979 that the term “fundamentalism” entered common parlance in contexts far removed from its Protestant origins. Read more...

Characteristics of the Fundamentalist: A Summary
We now are in a position to arrive at a summary description of the fundamentalist mind set. We will arrange the points noted by Marty, Nagata, Antoun, Lifton and others under two main heads: psychological (dealing with mind set) and practical (dealing with action).
Psychologically, fundamentalists crave certainty and reject complexity. They are obsessed with textual and doctrinal purity. They feel threatened by anything that appears to challenge their assumptions, and are inclined to be authoritarian and oppositional. Exclusivist or anti-pluralist, they are opposed to open discussion. In addition, they are reactionary or anti-evolutionary. Rejecting modernity as a whole, they selectively appropriate aspects of modernity that help them in their action.
Practically, fundamentalists set rigid boundaries and try to control the flow of information. They interpret sacred texts in a way that supports their convictions, and use manipulative language, by which they attempt to rouse the masses. They are not averse to the use of violence. They demonize those they believe to be their enemies, casting themselves as heroes in a great cosmic drama.
In a separate section we will see whether these characteristics are present in the leaders of the anti-Heehs movement and, more generally, among those who are trying to turn the teaching of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother into a narrow religion.

Religious Fundamentalism
The tendency to claim God as an ally for our partisan value and ends ... is the source of all religious fanaticism. — Reinhold Niebuhr

Once considered exclusively a matter of religion, theology, or scriptural correctness, use of the term "fundamentalism" has recently undergone metaphorical expansion into other domains and other forms of absolutist ideological expression, as the previous section has shown. In the public and media portrayal of fundamentalism in particular, political militancy has superseded concern over texts, as one gathers from the identification of fundamentalisms in non-Abrahamic religion zones such as South Asia — for instance, the Hindu Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). In the present section we focus on religious fundamentalism. Read more...

An Outbreak of Fundamentalism?
Religious fanaticism is something psychologically lowborn and ignorant — and usually in its action fierce, cruel and base. — Sri Aurobindo, Letters on Yoga, p. 490

Those who use the term “fundamentalism” to describe the activities of religious groups or individuals must be very clear about what they mean by the word. Over the last thirty years, fundamentalism has ceased to indicate merely a particular sort of textual literalism in religious matters. More and more, it is used to refer to a religious orientation characterized by certain psychological attitudes and habits of action. There are similarities and differences among the meanings of fundamentalist, traditionalist, conservative, zealot, ideologue, and fanatic. Each of these describes in its own way a combination of belief and action that has often made religion a divisive and reactionary force.

Sri Aurobindo never wrote about fundamentalism per se (the term was coined after he had completed his major writings, and during his lifetime was confined to its original context: Protestant Christianity), but when he wrote of religious fanaticism he characterized it in ways that modern writers on fundamentalism would have no difficulty recognizing. He put his finger on the nature of fanaticism and much of what is now called fundamentalism in the sentence quoted above. Though the two words are not synonymous, both fanaticism and fundamentalism tend to be seen as characterized by “lowborn and ignorant” habits of thought and can lead to “fierce, cruel and base” modes of action.

Words with negative connotations often degenerate into vague terms of abuse. Words commonly employed in this way include “fascism” and “fundamentalism”. We wish to avoid any loose and imprecise use of the latter term. We undertake our analysis of the writings of the leaders of a loud and potentially disastrous movement among followers of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother and practitioners or would-be practitioners of their Integral Yoga in a spirit of seriousness, marked not by enmity but by sadness. We find many troubling characteristics in the rhetoric and activities of the leaders of this movement, and believe that there are grounds for regarding their actions, prima facie, as signs of fundamentalism.

In what follows, we will see how closely the claims made and the language used by these individuals approach the characteristics of fundamentalism that are acknowledged by authorities on the subject. In our conclusion, we will consider whether the term “fundamentalism” can rightly be applied to the mindset and actions of these individuals. Read more...

Fundamentalism in the Oxford English Dictionary
The following articles deal with the issue of fundamentalism in a broader context. Their relevance to the problem of fundamentalism in the IY community is indicated in the introductory sections and, and more detail, in subsequent comments that were originally posted at the SCIY blog.

Religious Nationalism and Transnationalism in a Global World
In this essay MARK JUERGENSMEYER looks at the responses to old secular nationalisms, which are under siege precisely at a time when they have themselves been weakened by globalization. Their vulnerability has been the occasion for new ethno-religious politics to step into the breach and shore up national identities and purposes in their own distinctive ways. Some forms of ethno-religious politics are global, some are virulently anti-global, and yet others are content with the attempt to create ethno-religious nation-states.

MARK JUERGENSMEYER is professor of sociology and director of the Orfalea Center for Global and International Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara. He is author or editor of a dozen books, including Terror in the Mind of God: The Global Rise of Religious Violence (Third edition, California 2003), The New Cold War? Religious Nationalism Confronts the Secular State (California 1993), and Religion and Global Civil Society (Oxford 2005). Read more...

Competing Visions of History
ABDULLAHI A. AN-NA'IM is the Charles Howard Candler Professor of Law at Emory University School of Law. Originally from Sudan, An-Na'im is a disciple of nationalist leader and Islamic reformer and Sufi, Mahmoud Mohamed Taha, who was executed in 1985 by the regime of President Gaafar Nimeiry. Taha's pronouncement of his first political incarceration by the British is reminiscent of Sri Aurobindo's: "When I settled in prison I began to realize that I was brought there by my Lord and thence I started my Khalwah with Him."

An-Na'im's specialties include human rights in Islam and cross-cultural issues in human rights. He is the director of the Religion and Human Rights Program at Emory. He also participates in Emory's Center for the Study of Law and Religion. An-Naim was formerly the Executive Director of the African bureau of Human Rights Watch. He argues for a synergy and interdependence between human rights, religion, critical thought and secularism, instead of a dichotomy and incompatibility between them.

A crucial point in An-Na'im's fascinating and insightful article "Competing Visions of History in Internal Islamic Discourse and Islamic-Western Dialogue" is the hegemony of the "center" over the "peripheries" as defined in terms of the historical origins of Islam. Pondicherry is the Mecca of the Integral Yoga community. The question Angiras raises in his comment is: does this make Sri Aurobindo the property of the Ashram and India, or does he belong to the world? The attempt by defenders of the faith in Pondicherry to seize control of the representation of Sri Aurobindo on the other side of the globe resembles the hijacking of Islam by the Wahhabis of Saudi Arabia. Read more...

Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism
This is an edited excerpt from Chapter 22, titled "Ideological Totalism," of Robert Jay Lifton's book, Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism: A Study of 'Brainwashing' in China. Lifton, a psychiatrist and distinguished professor at the City University of New York, has studied the psychology of extremism for decades. He testified at the 1976 bank robbery trial of Patty Hearst about the theory of "coercive persuasion." First published in 1961, his book was reprinted in 1989 by the University of North Carolina Press (Chapel Hill and London). Lifton's analysis of "thought-reform" applied to cultic behavior is very instructive in our present space-time. Read more...