theology


There seems to be some concern in Australia over foreign ‘soft power’ and spying, if not influencing social and political processes. Anyone working for, promoting or even speaking favourably about a foreign entity may soon have to register as a ‘foreign agent’. Apart from the problem that Australia has nothing really worth spying upon, the most obvious culprits as ‘foreign agents’ would have to be EU and European Studies Centres. They are directly funded by the EU and foster pro-EU positions. It means, for instance, that any serious assessment of matters such as Brexit find little room, or indeed the treatment of Greece. And it entails a good degree of Russophobia and even Sinophobia.

Advertisements

‘How do you deal with slavery in the ancient world?’ Someone asked the person who had just given a paper on class as a ‘reductionist’ category.

‘Well’, came the reply. ‘You need to consider the situation of each individual slave. One slave may be in the mines under brutal conditions, while another may be a slave in a wealthy household, or another may be a skilled artisan. Each individual situation is different, with many determining factors that need to be analysed. So it is not helpful to consider slaves as a class, which is a reductionist category …’

At this moment, I realised once again that liberalism really does mess with people’s minds. The presenter in question had skipped through a number of European philosophers such as Deleuze, Latour and Balibar, claiming some vaguely ‘Marxist’ credentials so as to show how even Marxism had given up on the ‘crude’ category of class. I was waiting to see Margaret Thatcher quoted as well: ‘there is no society’. With this conjuring trick, class had apparently disappeared.

Obviously, class was a real bogey for this person. It had to be fought off and denied any validity. The context of course was the return of class as a way of understanding and acting in the world. We can identify a a wide range of causes: the rise of a range of left-wing movements, even in bourgeois democracies (from Jeremy Corbyn to Bernie Sanders), the strength of angry forces on the right, the decline of the United States and the increasing strength of socialist China with a very different vision for the world. In this context, it should be no surprise that class had returned with a vigour not seen for a while, even in the fraying and disintegrating hegemony of Euro-American practice and thought. Thus, as a desperate rear-guard action, class must be denied any validity, even in the cocoon of intellectual inquiry. It is a ‘reductionist’ category, it is argued, slotting people arbitrarily into ‘boxes’ – standard rhetorical moves you will encounter again and again.

Let me give another example, again in discussions about ancient slavery. Now the emphasis was on manumission and freed persons. In slavery, it was argued, the promise of manumission held a powerful ideological force, ensuring that many slaves ‘behaved’ themselves so as to keep alive the possibility of manumission. And freed persons contributed greatly to ancient Roman society and economics.

Then came the question: ‘But why did the Roman ruling class still see them in terms of slavery?’ I would add that they also viewed peasants, under tenure or not, and even the later coloni (when all were tied to land rather than masters or landlords) in terms of slavery. The answer: you have to consider the individual situations of freed persons. Some became relatively rich and owned houses, while others ended up being poor day labourers. Their individual situations and status differed greatly … By now, the strategy should be obvious: negate class through a thousand qualifications in favour of the private individual. And one can even add a little bit of Max Weber, suggesting that status, if not Weber’s great love of the role a ‘free labour’ (conjured out of thin air), played a role.

This effort to deny class in the name of a pernicious liberalism has a number of levels, not least of which is denying class all round you (I was in the United States, believe it or not, where Trump was president and homeless people crowded the streets). But I would like to stress one point that is directly connected to the examples given: modern liberalism arose in the context of slavery. In other words, liberalism is based on a constitutive unfreedom, the exclusion of many from the category of the free and private individual. The first ideologues of liberalism were either slave owners or strong supporters of slavery. Think of the framers of the American Declaration of Independence, or Hugo Grotius, John Stuart Mill or John Locke.[1] Indeed, they saw what came to be called liberalism as a sober and reasonable position, so much so that abolitionists were regarded as fanatics and extremists who would tear society apart. All in the name of the private individual.

In other words, the power of liberalism is to deny and negate the exclusion and oppression at its heart. If you stress the complexity of each individual situation, class dissipates and you can get on with your individual life in blissful ignorance. Liberalism really does screw your mind.

[1] Tellingly, liberalism arose first and was strongest in three contexts: the revolution of the Dutch against Philip II of Spain (1655-1648), the Glorious Revolution in England (1688) and the American Revolution (1765-83). In each place, the slave trade provided the basis for wealth and power.

This one has been on the way for some time. Last week the new Ordinance on Religious Affairs was published, which is to take effect on 1 February 2018. To publicise the new rules, we find Yu Zhengsheng, a senior political advisor, making the following points:

Conflicts and disputes involving ethnic and religious factors should be dealt with in accordance with the law concerned to safeguard social harmony and stability.

We must resolutely resist overseas infiltration via religious means and prevent missionary activities in educational institutions.

Apart from promoting traditional Chinese culture and national unity, Yu also stressed that “socialist core values should guide and educate religious figures and their followers.” I love that one.

But what is the background to these new ordinances? The Institute for World Religion Studies at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences has been engaged in research for some time (I have played a modest part in the process). So we find Liu Guopeng, from the institute, observing that Protestant groups have been growing and – due to conservative tendencies among some – have been condemning Buddhism, Taoism and Islam. And external influences have radicalised some elements among the Xinjiang Uyghur and Ningxia Hui nationalities.

The key in these cases is that all religions should stick to independence and self-governance and not be controlled by any foreign entity – whether Christian, Muslim or indeed Buddhist. The Three-Self Patriotic Movement (TSPM), set up with the work of the Chinese Christian communist, Yu Yaozong, and Zhou Enlai, is perhaps the best example of this, which is one of the largest Protestant organisations in the world.

 

 

I am completely out of things for a while, cycling more than 1,000 km across Germany on the Mittelland Route (d4). But I did notice this intriguing Chinese take on what is happening in the United States, with statues being torn down, violent skirmishes, etc. The People’s Daily notes that more and more people in China are seeing what is evolving as a ‘Cultural Revolution‘, understanding the term as a wave of anger, violence and chaos.

Way back in 1945, Stalin was told of the first nuclear test in the USA. He was sceptical. Why? You may have all the firepower in the world, he pointed out, but it is the quality of ground troops that makes all the difference. Stalin’s insights are still very relevant. The USA loves firing missiles and dropping bombs – more bombs were dropped in North Korea in the early 1950s than in the whole of the second world war. But as soon as ground troops go in, they are clearly inferior. The recent history of failures reveals this all too clearly: Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya … One wonders how long the US war machine can keep on failing.

And – as a footnote – I am afraid I was wrong about Trump on the international scene. He is no different from the Bushes, Clinton and Obama, acting like drunken cowboys, trying to provoke one country after another.

With increasing news that US border bureaucrats are asking travellers to hand over electronic devices and provide access (passwords etc.), so they can check your social media, email and so on, it is time either to give the USA a miss (there are better places to visit) or to leave all devices at home. A simple ‘dumb’ or ‘burner’ phone, with a couple of numbers on it may be all that you want to bring with you. Then again, you may be denied entry with these as well, since they may be a signal you are trying to hide something.

In all this, the one I like best is that one may be subject to ‘ideological’ questioning upon arrival at the border.

By and large the Social-Democratic parties (and I include here the ‘socialist’ parties) in Europe support the EU. The reasons vary, but the underlying justification is that the EU is in part a social-democratic project. It seeks to encourage liberal economic policies, while trying to ameliorate some its worse effects – largely to keep the system running.

This position has certain implications in relation to Eastern Europe and ‘former’ communist countries.

  1. A wholesale denial that the economic situation in many Eastern European countries has become worse since 1989 rather than better. This entails a denial of systematic deindustrialisation and the resultant large-scale unemployment.
  2. A perverse suggestion that the EU’s free market means the free movement of manufactured products but not the commodity of labour power. That is, you call sell products on the capitalist market of the EU, but workers should not move to other countries. Why perverse? First, the movement of labour power is one of the commodities in a capitalist market. Second, one of the main aims of the EU is to drive down the cost of labour in Western European countries by employing lower-paid workers from Eastern Europe. This is to counter the law of the falling rate of profit.
  3. So you find social-democratic parties targeting ‘foreign’ workers so as to secure the wavering votes of workers in their ‘own’ countries.
  4. But why would workers from Eastern Europe move elsewhere for jobs? The only position remaining is the weak suggestion that ‘everyone seeks a better life’. Implicit in this suggestion is the agreement that matters have become worse in Eastern Europe since 1989.
  5. And you must – if you are of this persuasion – blame Putin, Trump and the ‘stupid’ Brexit voters in the UK for Europe’s current ills.

Next Page »