December 29, 2009

Resurgence of religion both as a principle of political authority and a structuring presence in everyday life

Alberto Toscano on Marx and Religion from An und für sich by Adam Kotsko

Alberto Toscano has an article up that attempts to make the case for a continued relevance of the Marxian critique of religion in our “post-secular” era. It’s really excellent, as one would expect, and it brings out a point that I believe is especially important in light of the resurgence of the classic Enlightenment critique of religion in the guise of Dawkins, Hitchens, etc., namely that Marx is in many ways carrying out a “critique of the critique of religion.”
If we are to follow Derrida, religion itself can be regarded as paradigmatic of the processes of autonomisation mercilessly pursued by Marx throughout the domains of ideology and abstraction. As Derrida notes in Specters of Marx, on Marx ‘only the reference to the religious world allows one to explain the autonomy of the ideological, and thus its proper efficacy, its incorporation in apparatuses that are endowed not only with an apparent autonomy but a sort of automaticity … as soon as there is production, there is fetishism: idealisation, autonomisation and automatisation, dematerialisation and spectral incorporation’.[43]
But if the full development of a historical-materialist critique of abstractions, moving beyond demystification to constitution, allows us to think of a critical history of religion that would surpass the eliminativist position asserted in The German Ideology, we are still faced with the problem of the plurality of religions. Indeed, as Michèle Bertrand rightly notes, is it even possible to speak of ‘religion in general’? Though as theory, religion might answer to a relatively invariant human need to render the world intelligible, and as practice, to master it, this still does not tell us why ‘this religion has found a receptive terrain, why men have been sensitive to its message. A religion only exists to the extent that a social group declares its adherence to it, drawing from it certain practices, and so on. How is a religion born? Why does it gain followers? How does its audience grow?’[44] [...]

Marx leaves behind the critique of the religious form taken by a state in which man contemplates and is dominated by his own alienated species-being, to undertake the far more insidious ‘religion of everyday life’.[72] In this respect, and in spite of Marx’s draining of real autonomy and real history from religion in The German Ideology, there is considerable truth to Jacques Derrida’s indication regarding ‘the absolute privilege that Marx always grants to religion, to ideology as religion, mysticism, or theology, in his analysis of ideology in general’[73] – if by privilege we understand the necessity of the religious ‘analogy’, for grasping the process of autonomisation that characterizes a society, that of capitalism, in which men are dominated by abstractions. This domination needs to move beyond the state-form and into the everyday of production, consumption and circulation, where men ‘have already acted … before thinking’.[74] 

It is only thus, by tracking the emergence of real abstractions out of social relations, that the tradition of anti-theological criticism whence Marx himself originated may be truly surpassed. This criticism was trapped by a fantasy of omnipotence, whereby the mental critique of abstractions, the impious mastery of ideas, sufficed to dispel them. As Marx wrote of Stirner: ‘He forgets that he has only destroyed the fantastic and spectral form assumed by the idea of “Fatherland”, etc., in the brain … but that he has still not touched these ideas, insofar as they express actual relations’.[75] Only a study of the religion of everyday life will realize for Marx the project of moving from the criticism of Heaven to the criticism of Earth. [...]

This very insight was the object of a brilliant, if beguiling, fragment by Walter Benjamin, precisely entitled ‘Capitalism as Religion’.[77] In contemporary theory, it has been consistently advocated, from a Lacanian and Marxisant standpoint by Slavoj Zizek, who has revisited the theory of commodity-fetishism as the basis for a theory of the ‘secular’ endurance of belief, for instance in the ‘faith in money-value’ whereof Marx speaks in vol. 3 of Capital. In light of Marx’s theory of fetishism, Zizek reads the predicament of Western capitalist societies as follows:

Commodity fetishism (our belief that commodities are magical objects, endowed with an inherent metaphysical power) is not located in our mind, in the way we (mis)perceive reality, but in our social reality itself. … If, once upon a time, we publicly pretended to believe, while deep inside us we were sceptics or even engaged in obscene mocking of our public beliefs, today we tend publicly to profess our sceptical/hedonist/relaxed attitude, while inside us we remain haunted by beliefs and severe prohibitions.[78]

Zizek’s position dovetails quite nicely with Benjamin’s conviction that capitalism is a ‘purely cultic religion’ (the rituals of this purely ‘utilitarian’ religion include sale and purchase, investment, stock speculation, financial operations, and so on). 

No comments:

Post a Comment