I dream of Žižek

Last night I met Žižek in a dream (fully-clothed, thankfully).

‘Why haven’t you published much lately?’ I asked.

‘I’ve been studying for a degree in theology’, he said.

‘A degree in theology?’ I said. ‘Why?’

‘I’m sick of relying on idiots like Chesterton and Milbank to develop my theological arguments’.


Breivik, the pope and radical orthodoxy

Has anyone else noticed a curious confluence of Breivik’s proposals regarding the church and those espoused by the current conservative holder of the see of Rome and certain proponents of radical orthodoxy? They share: an anti-Islamic perspective, a critique of liberalism and Marxism, an argument for the vital role of liturgy, the proposal that the Roman Catholic church functions as a line of defence against Islam and modernity, and – crucially – the suggestion that Roman Catholicism should re-absorb Protestantism.

Red Tories run out of cash

Over in the UK, Res Publica, the bastion of Red Toryism, source of the ‘big society’, home of the self-styled ‘philosopher-king’ Philip Blond, has run out of cash. Staff are being locked out due to unpaid rents, paychecks are empty … Looks like David Cameron’s cuts are coming home.

Where are those bloody elves and their bags of gold when the worthy folk of merrie England need them?

(ht aps)


Thick Moralising? Red Tory returns fire

No sooner had our piece appeared – ‘Thin Economics, Thick Moralising: Red Toryism and the Politics of Nostalgia’. Bulletin for the Study of Religion 40.1: 16-24 – than a Red Tory appeared out of the woodwork to defend Red Toryism. It is over at Rob Beck’s ‘Sublunary Sublime‘. Alex Andrews dove in for an immediate rebuttal – below – and I chipped in with a comment – also below. Makes it clear to me that the Red Tories need some solid Leninist analysis: Red Toryism resembles Narodism, which developed a classic case of bourgeois rural utopian dreaming. But the likeness aslo explains why the Red Tories have so effortlessly supported the neo-liberal policies of the ConDems in the UK.

SS original.

AA’s reply:

I only just noticed this response, not having been in the habit of regularly googling myself! Thank you for it.

Our response was necessarily polemic and perhaps a little short partly because we were and are not simply intervening in a dry academic debate, but in the actualities of public policy and the austerity agenda that is already having delirious effect on the very possibility of civil society in the UK. From the perspective of March 2011, I think our concerns were justified – Blond’s vision (whether he intended to or not) is providing cover for the wholesale destruction of the gains of the welfare state – including the farming of the wholesale public sector privatisation and introducing the market to an unprecedented extent in both pre-18 education, higher education and the National Health Service. Meanwhile John Milbank, through his journalistic output in both the Guardian newspaper has been month on month been defending Conservative policy – from their welfare reforms, to the Big Society, to their university reforms cutting 80% of the funding of the humanities and so on.

One technical point – Red Tory hadn’t come out when we first wrote the article – so if it seemed to miss some of specificity of his work there, then fine. However, the central thrust of the piece I stand by – and you’ll have to wait until I publish my thesis (which deals with communitarianism such as Blond’s and neoliberalism) to read me take on this.

The dialectic between localism and capitalism I do stand by most strongly. There is a book shortly coming out on this from the Zer0 stable I have been lucky enough to be privy to which has an developed critique of localism that I find highly satisfactory. People argue that localism allows use-value to flourish, and you hear this not merely from Blond but from Marxists, green socialists, anarchists, myriad communitarians, the Telos group and so on. However, I think this forgets that this debate was had out between Marx and Proudhon in the 19th Century. Though I have no problem thrashing Marx for many errors, I think these texts are crucial in explaining why localism can provide no resistance – I suggest you consider them. In addition, the idea that local small scale industries are not exploitative depends upon ore unexamined conceptions – on the contrary I believe small scale industries and even self-employment can be sometimes more exploitative – having worked in small businesses I’ve seen that craft worker spend so much time . I’d add that capitalism, for the Marxist tradition is also entirely arbitrary (Brenner is a Marxist, of course) the result of the class struggle and the triumph of the bourgeois over feudalism. On the entirely arbitrary character of capitalism and the contingency of its construction we can be entirely agreed.

Is it the “centrality” bit you object to? Maybe if we seemed to argue the most important bit about Catholicism was this we certainly are wrong and over-egged. However, I do think RO tends towards an intellectual justification by faith despite its avowed allegiance to the Catholic tradition.

As for the discussion of virtue, I’m a bit busy at the moment to get into the technicalities here. It is something I have put a fair bit of thought to and is in the PhD – I am broadly sympathetic to noting that of the extant forms of ethical reflection, it is by far and away superior, if only that it actually is the way people ethically reason “in real life” – ie its is the ethical reasoning immanent to actually existing social practices even in modernity. This is where MacIntyre isn’t radical enough – he doesn’t see that liberalism is a virtue ethic because pace Brandom-esque “Making It Explicit” all morality is a virtue ethic in form, even if it claims to oppose it (forgive the sketchy thoughts here)! Indeed, as many have pointed out (including Eagleton, MacIntyre and McCabe no less!) Marxism shares a good deal with this Aristotelean tradition of virtue ethics – indeed Marx quite liked Aristotle as is well documented and it aims at some sort of eudamonic flourishing. But I’d add to this, precisely as we did in the article, these notions often were not the result of a communal (and even intimate society) but of abusive hierarchy. Or to cut an extremely long story short – I think the problem with Blond is that the way in which he re-organises the polis (as virtue needs a proper polis for it to work) is all too close to a) the way it looks now b) is pretty similar to neoliberalism described by actual neoliberals (he cites Ropke who invented the term and Hayek who made to its propagation in the book directly!) c) this is all about as threatening to the status quo as dog walking.

Fact is, at the end of the day, I am not in favour of hierarchy, but egalitarianism. If that makes me ‘modern’ so be it. I find it very difficult to believe that an ontology based upon the hierarchical division of the universe would not cause that to be reflected socially.

Regardless of all that my charitable critique of Red Toryism and the Big Society and the Tory government will be given on the streets soon enough! Cheers.

And my brief comment:

I’ll respond in full later, but the crucial issue is localism. I would like to tackle it from the side of my reading of Lenin. In the late 1890s the Narodniks held to a very similar position as RT, thinking it was deliciously radical. Lenin systematically shows it up as a bourgeois utopia fixed on a rural life that never existed. Not only was localism a means for greater exploitation, but the bourgeois nature of the movement meant that it had no trouble supporting liberal positions – so also now, witness the seamless RT support of the neo-liberal programs of the ConDems.

Further, the historical narrative of capitalism that we all tend to favour is based on an anomalous history. Diakonov makes this argument in his ‘Paths of History’: Europe is in the curious position of being an historical anomaly, yet it is an anomaly that has been taken as the norm.

Max Horkheimer and the red tories

I can’t help thinking that a careful reading of Max Horkheimer might aid the red(-faced) tories and sundry hangers-on during their effort to sup with the devil Cameron. A snippet from Criticism of Theology (with a few inserts).

One of Horkheimer’s main themes in his texts on religion is the role of the state – that collective gone bad. His experiences were not the best: he had fled the Nazis in the early 1930s, resettling the Institute for Critical Theory at Columbia University in New York; he had witnessed from afar what was taking place under Stalin in the Soviet Union; he and Adorno were not enthused at all by the vigorous capitalism in the United States. With these tendencies all around, it should not be surprising that Horkheimer would scan history for similar tendencies – and he found it with both Christianity and Judaism.

As for Christianity, Constantine the Great – son of a Christian mother and who himself converted at least in 312 CE (if not earlier) before the famous battle of the Milvian Bridge in which he gained control of the Roman Empire – is the main culprit. By 313, Constantine and Licinius (then emperor in the east) issued the Edict of Milan, which legalised Christianity, and Constantine set about an aggressive programme of building churches (in the main centres of Jerusalem, Constantinople, Rome and elsewhere in the empire), paying for a whole new class of state-bureaucrats, the priests, calling church-councils (especially the first ecumenical council in Nicaea in 325 CE) for the sake of Christian doctrinal unity, and ensuring favourable treatment for Christianity. Even though it was not until 380 CE that Theodosius I proclaimed Christianity the sole religion of the Empire, the deal had been done and the Christian church had moved from a marginal religion under pressure of state-censure to become extraordinarily powerful, wealthy and used to employing strong-arm tactics against opponents.

For some, this epochal shift was the sign of Christianity’s success. The Eastern orthodox and oriental orthodox churches made Constantine a saint, and ideologues such as Eusebius of Caesaria, the first church-historian (and Blond’s much more illustrious fore-runner), opined in 320 CE that a unified Christian empire was God’s will. For others, it was the great moment of betrayal. Radical Reformers in the sixteenth century, who suffered persecution at the hands of both the Roman-Catholics and the Protestants, saw Constantine’s conversion and adoption of Christianity as the religion of empire as the moment when Christianity sold out and betrayed that for which Jesus and the early Christians had stood. Horkheimer agrees wholeheartedly: this was when Christianity became rather embarrassed at what Jesus had said and done. And so it developed ‘a secret and indomitable hatred for that attitude of mind for which its founder had earlier been put to death’.

The consequences for theology and practice were momentous: evil and hell became necessary categories for those who did not conform; orthopraxis combined with orthodoxy to define who submitted to the will of the Church and who broke ranks; prayer slid from intercession for rain, the crops, the ruler or the people to the furtherance of one’s own (later bourgeois) goals; theology began its delicate task of reconciling the clear demands found in the Gospels with the requirements of power (a deifnition of radical orthodoxy …). On this last item, Horkheimer and G.E.M. Ste. Croix would have had much to discuss over a long night, many empty beer-bottles and an overflowing ashtray – Horkheimer with the theoretical depth and Ste. Croix with his inexhaustible references.

Yet the theme that keeps recurring in Horkheimer’s observations concerning this complex betrayal is the way the longing for the other becomes identical with longing for the mother-country. At this point, Horkheimer’s invocation on the ban on idolatry from the second and third commandments in Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5 has some weight: ‘critical theory … rests on the thought that the Absolute – that is God – cannot be made into an object [nicht zum Objekt gemacht werden kann]’. Adorno would make this ban on idolatry into the Bilderverbot, a persistent leitmotiv of his thought; even though the theme is more muted in Horkheimer’s writings, it still has significant critical bite. Identification of the state, the mother-country, with the Absolute is the worst form of idolatry. And, like all idols, it demands sacrifice in blood, justifies wars of aggression and bloody suppression.

Horkheimer compares this compromise to a skyscraper, in which the ‘basement is a slaughterhouse, its roof a cathedral, but from the windows of the upper floors, it affords a really beautiful view of the starry heavens’.