Robert Pfaller: What To Do When Progress Seems to Melt Away Emancipation?

MAY DAY SCHOOL 2016: Religion and Capitalism

Lecture 29-04-2016


The cur­rent “post­sec­u­lar” exper­i­ence of blos­som­ing reli­gious fun­da­ment­al­isms as well as of cul­tural fan­at­icisms – such as vegan­ism and “health reli­gion” – chal­lenges the mod­ern­ist under­stand­ing of cap­it­al­ism as a power that “melts” everything solid into thin air: appar­ently not everything is get­ting melted, and not forever – obvi­ously some things can be recast again, or even newly cast. And on the other hand, pre­cisely what used to be the melt­ing forces, eco­nomic ration­al­ity, sec­u­lar­ism and enlight­en­ment, do not any­more seem to be indis­pens­able weapons of cap­it­al­ist devel­op­ment, but now appear to get melted them­selves, due to its pro­gress. This leads to the intriguing ques­tion: what is here melt­ing what, and which of them is on the side of the egal­it­arian, eman­cip­at­ory forces?

These para­doxes can only be explained by a closer ana­lysis of the dynam­ics and over­de­termin­a­tions in the his­tory of reli­gions. If we fol­low Jan Assmann’s dis­tinc­tion between “primary” and “sec­ond­ary” reli­gions, as well as Octave Mannoni’s psy­cho­ana­lytic dis­tinc­tion between “belief” and “faith”, and if we develop a pre­cise under­stand­ing of Max Weber’s notion of the “dis­en­chant­ment of the world”, we become able to draw bet­ter lines of demarc­a­tion. First, the enemy of super­sti­tious belief is not reason, but reli­gious faith. Dis­en­chant­ment is there­fore, as Weber emphas­izes, executed not by enlight­en­ment but by religion’s hos­til­ity against magic. Secondly, reli­gious fan­at­ism occurs when the mas­ter-sig­ni­fi­ers of belief, faith and sec­u­lar reason get sus­pen­ded. Reli­gious fun­da­ment­al­ism and sec­u­lar “health reli­gious” fan­at­icism there­fore have to be under­stood as ideo­lo­gical twins; as oppos­ite sides of the same coin. This sus­pen­sion can be explained by a spe­cific internal dia­lectic that occurs when faith, con­fron­ted with the beliefs of oth­ers, turns itself into para­noic con­scious­ness. Thirdly, this para­noic con­scious­ness, the obses­sion with the other’s pre­sumed enjoy­ment, is the indis­pens­able ideo­lo­gical form of neo­lib­eral cap­it­al­ism. It keeps people nar­row-minded, anxious, hos­tile against good life and envi­ous against oth­ers – ready to accept child­ish, author­it­arian pro­hib­i­tions and, at the same time, to ignore the massive redis­tri­bu­tions of wealth. From here, we can draw a first polit­ical con­clu­sion: the ideo­lo­gical struggle of today’s eman­cip­at­ory forces is neither a struggle for, nor against reli­gion. Rather, it has to fol­low George Bataille’s hints con­cern­ing the “sac­red of every­day life” as the stake of class struggle. The aim of eman­cip­at­ory ideo­lo­gical struggle must there­fore be to re-estab­lish those mas­ter sig­ni­fi­ers that allow indi­vidu­als to behave in a sov­er­eign way – or, in the words of Ber­tolt Brecht, “to fear bad life more than death”.