A Response to ZG:

This is Timothy Fitzgerald’s answer to ZG’s response to his post:

A demonstration of the way that modern categories tend unconsciously to reconfigure any thought experiment back into a closed circle.

I am grateful to ZG for his response to my arguments concerning modern categories and their operation. It is especially good to hear the viewpoint of a Chinese colleague. Unfortunately, as he himself admits, he has not read my published articles and I am unclear what he is himself responding to. His thoughts include some misreadings, but these also offer me the opportunity to clarify some issues, so my thanks to him for ‘reaching out’.

I would say that his misreading is itself an illustration that we live in a closed system of signs that automatically reconfigures everything back into its own self-referential mechanism of binary either-or substitutions.

When I refer to ‘modern categories’, the term ‘modern’ is itself one of those problematic categories, apparently self-evident in meaning, and, with almost automatic inevitability, triggers such equally empty terms as ‘pre-modern’. This parasitic pair can then be kept in perpetual motion by other stand-in binaries – advanced and backward, progressive and reactionary, rational and irrational, civilized and barbarous. Like everyone else, I am caught in the series of either-or binary circularities. My project is, hopefully, to unsettle them.

The problem with the idea that ‘we westerners’ are ‘modern’ is that it opens the door for a whole series of assumptions, such as that some countries are ‘pre-modern’ and backward, and need the progress and development that ‘western’ nations are assumed to have, but backward or ‘third world’ nations are lacking. We are caught in this system of automatic ideological binary substitutions. ZG is also thinking and writing within this model; he refers to the “insufficient enlightenment” of mainland China; and he says that “many people are still striving for the realization of Enlightenment ideals including democracy, constitutionalism, and a free market”. It is not only China – many people in contemporary Europe and America are also still striving for this realization. My question is whether these ideals have ever been realised, whether they are what they appear to be, and whether they should be taken at face value? What actually does it mean to “strive for the realization of Enlightenment ideals”?

ZG criticises me for asserting the “falsity of democracy”, but this is not a fair criticism, and distorts my endeavour. If we mean by ‘democracy’ a system of self-governance that involves the maximum number of people in deciding what we want ‘democracy’ to mean, and how we want to realise a democratic order in our lives, then I want to be one of the people to participate. As with all these very general categories, they can mean different things in different contexts and to different people. I agree that ‘democracy’ is a category that is necessary for any radical critique of the liberal capitalist or party authoritarian status quo. My question concerns how we can take the sign ‘democracy’ out of the propaganda jurisdiction of the corporate state and its agencies, such as the mainstream media and the corrupt agencies of public relations.

I stress my agreement with ZG that Marxism, as much as liberalism, is a product of the European Enlightenment. I have argued in several publications that Marx gave us (on the one hand) a penetrating critique of liberal political economy, and the insight of ‘accumulation by dispossession’. On the other hand his thinking and the thinking of the Marxists that have followed him are captured by the myth, shared by liberals, of secular scientific progress. This includes much baggage, such as the belief that there is such a thing as ‘the economy’, outside of the self-referential discourse itself. Marxism is opposed to Liberalism at one level; however, it is simultaneously based at another level on a deeper set of common assumptions, such as the progress of humankind from lower to higher levels of rational awakening from the religious slumbers of the past. My question here is whether we can give any clear meaning to ‘secular scientific progress’. My own view is that we have substituted one set of myths and fictions for another. We have convinced ourselves that the widespread poverty, the disruption of habitats, the sweatshops that produce our clothes run on wage-slavery, the enormous problem of refugees who are homeless, incessant wars and a weapon’s industry that gains from them – we have convinced ourselves that these are all merely temporary crises through which we have to pass in order to finally emerge into the light of ‘liberty’, that is, a world of self-regulating markets, private property, and the promises of consumer paradise.

ZG guesses that I may be a Buddhist and believe in “a universal compassion”. I have never described myself as a Buddhist and nor have I attempted to reify ‘a universal compassion’ in this way. All I would say is that we humans are as capable of compassion and generosity as we are of brutality and selfishness. We are as capable of giving and sharing as we are of grabbing and hoarding. Humans are capable of the most shocking brutality – we all know this. Can we survive without cooperation and sharing? Brutality was not invented by liberal capitalists. Why would anybody think such a thing? Worse than this, the brutality is in me too, I can participate in it, and I can be an agent of brutality. I do not believe that there is any essential ‘me’; on the contrary, there are contradictory and conflicting mental formations, predispositions, and categorical assumptions that tend to operate unconsciously. I have brutal thoughts, and I can restrain myself from acting on them. I can also act from love or compassion, by which I mean a non-condescending identification with the other’s suffering. One does not have to be classed as a ‘Buddhist’ to know these things. As soon as you slot me into the category of ‘Buddhist’ with a belief in ‘a universal compassion’, you are reintroducing reifying preconceptions that create divisions (she’s a Buddhist, he’s a Christian, she’s a Muslim, he’s a liberal secularist, she’s a Chinese Communist, and so on), and from there to a tragedy of confusions which do not help anyone of us to see our common humanity clearly.

A problem with ZG’s response is that he continually reintroduces the categories that I wish to critically problematise as though they have some obvious meaning, and then attributes them to me. I do not believe in “the realization of political and economic justice”. I am asking what does it mean to talk about justice that is ‘political’ or justice that is ‘economic’? My issue is how such empty categories can appear to us as so obviously meaningful. What is it that drives our largely automatic and unconscious deployment of these terms as though it is obvious what they mean? Where do they derive their power?

Also, it is thankfully true that I have no “universal scheme” to achieve liberation from injustice. How could I know what is best for everyone? The last thing we need is very limited persons such as myself bringing forth schemes for everyone else’s benefit. That is not my project.

ZG is in my view right to question what we mean by ‘wealth’ and ‘poverty’. These are relative concepts and probably cannot be usefully discussed without having an agreed idea about what kind of wealth is worth having. Do we all want to be as rich as George Soros, or the family who own Walmart, or the Koch Brothers? No doubt there are Chinese equivalents. Personally I have no desire to be wealthy in the sense of owning vast amounts of capital and private property in various forms, especially when I know that the fortune was derived from the cheap labour of others in miserable working conditions. I do not think these would make me happy! I do, however, want to have various basic necessities that I can share with others – grub first, then ethics – necessities that we all need to survive in some kind of dignity. Capitalism is not inevitable. There is nothing inconceivable about organising ourselves more equally, more democratically and on the basis of greater respect for our common humanity.

I would not like to be born into or live in a refugee camp. Some refugee camps provide better conditions for basic living than others. But why are there refugee camps at all? Why are there refugees in such vast numbers, many living in misery? Do we content ourselves by saying, with Donald Rumsfeld and a shrug of the shoulders, ‘shit happens’? How have the so-called ‘enlightenment values’ and the promises of ‘liberal political economy’ led to such vast and widespread displacement and suffering? At what point do we question the assumption that, as long as we continue as we are, then eventually ‘progress’ will emerge and markets will solve our problems of distribution and raise all boats? This is a blind belief imposed on the populations with a fanatical zeal by the propagandists of market fundamentalism, and that is then rhetorically displaced onto ‘religious extremists’.

I don’t think I described capitalism as “evil”. I think global capitalism is legitimated by a destructive and irrational system of beliefs, but I do not think I used such a term as evil to refer to what I believe about capitalism. It is a kind of category mistake. ‘Evil’ is too deeply embedded in a Christian theological context, which I also do not believe in. Liberal political economy is a doctrine with a high degree of internal logical consistency but based on metaphysical abstractions that misleadingly appear as self-evident. I am concerned with how such abstractions as ‘free markets’, ‘the economy’, ‘market equilibrium’ and individuals as inherently possessive and self-maximising appear as self-evident truth and common sense, and why questioning them leads very smart people to get so defensive.

ZG’s asserts that:

“…although modern economics claims objectivity, it never considers itself as being able to predict accurately everything in the area it concerns. Being objective cannot be identified with inerrancy which seems to be what Fitzgerald asks for.”

ZG is correct that being objective is not the same as inerrancy, but nevertheless if economic theory has no capacity for prediction it is difficult to understand how economic and fiscal policy can be determined. I am also not clear what “the area it concerns” is. Where do ‘economics’ and its ‘object’ – presumably ‘the economy’ – begin and end? When is an economic decision not also a political decision, and vice versa? And can we really be confident that the science of economics is factual and exclusive of value judgements? I believe the economy is an abstraction that might possibly have some uses as a heuristic device but does not refer to anything independent of the economist’s own thought experiments, any more than John Locke’s ‘man in the state of nature’. Liberal economists have claimed historically and explicitly that their science is only about objective facts, and that values are subjective irrelevancies. (I do not refer to Adam Smith here, as he does not write about ‘economics’). I admit that I am not a trained economist, and, like many other average citizens, I approach ‘economics’ without claiming to understand all its mysteries. However, I cannot understand what the purpose of the science of economics is, if the people who call themselves economic scientists claim no relation to prediction and predictability. What is the relation between models of ‘the economy’ and the decisions of the Federal Reserve to raise or lower interest rates, or to increase or decrease the money supply? How can predictions be excluded from these decisions?

ZG seems to believe I advocate violent revolution, which is the trap I think we should avoid at all costs. He has unwittingly imported into our conversation the assumptions that I am critically distancing myself from. It is a revolution of understanding that we need, and this must be based on self-critique and institutional critique.

I respect a Chinese intellectual’s views about Chinese history. I agree with him that the Great Leap and the Cultural Revolution to which he refers were huge disasters. I am glad I did not have to live or die in them, or watch my loved ones being humiliated and torn to pieces by the party fanatics. ZG can give us a more expert analysis of these historical events than I can. I was taught in school in Britain (in the ‘50s and ‘60s) that the opium wars that had occurred in the late 19th century were a minor blip in the otherwise great British gift of civilization to ‘barbarous backward nations’ such as China. The Industrial Revolution and the extraction of surplus wealth from subjugated peoples (including the slave and sugar industries) gave Britain its great leap forward. This may have been – in an indirect but conceptual sense – the origin of Mao’s later reformulation, the myth of the Great Leap forward. The British, Americans, French and others who considered themselves to be the advance guard of progress wanted to kick-start the leap forward in backward colonies. Did Vietnam not also lead to Pol Pot?

In his final paragraph ZG presupposes the very binary constructions that I am questioning – if it isn’t capitalism, then it must be socialism; if it isn’t liberal political economy it must be Marxist political economy; if it isn’t centralized state allocation then it must be allocation through free markets; if it isn’t public property accumulation then it must be private property accumulation. Inadvertently, this kind of thinking will keep us trapped in their circular ways. I – and I believe many others – are trying to think ourselves out of them.

My thanks again to ZG for his comments and his interest, and for giving me the opportunity to give a little bit more explanation of my meaning. Not much can be said in these short exchanges, but it is helpful to hear such a response and to have the chance to elaborate a little – though hopefully my more substantial published work will supplement this short blog! It is fruitful to be in communication over the global issues that are of most concern to us, and I hope we can pursue the conversation together in the future.

Timothy Fitzgerald Abolishing Politics – A response

Timothy Fitzgerald was a founder member of CRA and his work continues to stimulate and enrich our thinking. In the linked extract he begins to develop a project following on from his more familiar discussions of the category of religion (2001, 2007, 2015). Here he begins to focus, drawing out some of the implications of his earlier publications, on ‘dominant and dominating’ categories as part of a system of representations. It is not just the problematic binary ‘religion/secular’ that is at issue here but a whole range of privileged, exclusionary terms or categories such as ‘politics’ and ‘private property’ that circulate within modern western discourse creating a series of highly unethical and dangerous inclusions and exclusions. It is very much a cris de coeur addressed, for example, to the academic community to take up its signatory role of critique. To accompany the link to Tim’s article, we include is a short reflection on the piece from a new member of CRA who writes from the perspective of China, a recently communist country.

ZG’s response

I am personally not as familiar with Fitzgerald’s work as some of my colleagues. However, this does not prevent me from putting my mind to understanding his introduction or being illuminated by his passionate and eloquent exposition. At first glance, what he endeavors to critically examine in this piece – a series of mutually parasitic categories originating from the European Enlightenment and the disastrous effects made by their dominant usage in modern Western society – do not seem relevant to the land I come from, since mainland China could be viewed by some as a “pre-modern” country where many people are still striving for the realization of Enlightenment ideals including democracy, constitutionalism, and a free market.

However, this so called “insufficient enlightenment” does not indicate that the current Chinese political-economic system and its dominant ideology (Marxism) have been built upon a completely different series of categories. Marxism as a modern ideology is itself to some extent a product of the European Enlightenment as well as those binaries the latter has made between secular/state and religion, science and superstition, and progress and backwardness. In fact, in order to “control” (an integral part of the ideal of the European Enlightenment) more efficiently, Marxism in both the Soviet Union and socialist China further developed a new series of binaries such as revolutionary and reactionary (counterrevolutionary), people and enemies, (people’s) democracy and dictatorship (to enemies), proletariat and exploiters, etc., some of which are still being used in mainland China today. More than that, the “religiousness” implied in the Marxist ideology, an insight which has been raised by Karl Löwith and many others, also supports the applicability of Fitzgerald’s deconstructive examination of modern categories.

While doing his critical job, Fitzgerald is very careful to avoid falling into the binary between proletariat and capitalists, or between good (people) and evil (people) himself. This can be seen from his insistent emphasis on the universally damaging effects of this system of abstract categories on all people, whether with power and wealth or not, and in his claim that those who control our institutions are neither able to choose rationally or to be happier than the rest of us. Some may sense from this claim a universal compassion similar to Buddhist ethics based upon its understanding that all persons possess a vast potential for goodness within their fundamental awareness and at the same time suffer from transience and conditioning from which oppressors too seek escape by oppressing others. And this represents the way in which Fitzgerald tries to go beyond the consciousness of class struggle which can be found in many contemporary Marxist criticisms of capitalism.

Is this attempt successful? We must admit that while Fitzgerald explicitly argues that what needs to be critically deconstructed is “a system of signs that creates collective illusions” rather than a certain class, there is still an implicitly dualistic structure of thinking in his elaboration. This implicitly dualistic structure of thinking can be found both in his criticism of modern categories such “economics” and “democracy,” as well as his remaining to be unfolded conception of liberation.

For Fitzgerald, although no one in the Western world can escape from being manipulated by the system of abstract categories he tries to deconstruct and in some sense all are suffering from this operation, he himself keeps making a division between rich and poor, between debtors and creditors, and between white male defenders of the “sacred” right of private property in the name of “national economy” or “democracy” and those being constantly exploited by the former. There is always a minority of people who benefit from the global capitalist system, even though the price to be paid is the creation of a majority of victims. On the other hand, in terms of possible liberation from the above injustice, I do not see in his conception any universal scheme to achieve this or reconciliation between oppressors and oppressed, other than the realization of political and economic justice.

This dualistic structure of thinking can also be found in Fitzgerald’s oversimplification of the social sciences as invalid, of the falsity of democracy and of the evil of global capitalism. For example, although modern economics claims objectivity, it never considers itself as being able to predict accurately everything in the area it concerns. Being objective cannot be identified with inerrancy which seems to be what Fitzgerald asks for. And while it must be admitted that a great proportion of global movements of people is experienced by its participants as involuntary, enforced, or even miserable, he also refuses, on the basis of his personal experiences, to imagine the possibility that in addition to scattering families, a global market can also provide people with opportunities to exert initiatives and creativity within a new culture as well as to enrich and extend their lives in this process. If Fitzgerald accuses the actually rhetorical nature of categories like “economics” and “democracy” of distorting reality, he is doing the same by making oversimplified comments on them.

As an intellectual from a “socialist” country, what concerns me more than this oversimplification as such, however, is its possible outcomes. This view of current institutions in the Western world, as far as I am concerned, appears to underestimate the possibility that “it would be much worse without them,” a possibility I, as well as many other Chinese intellectuals, have learned from the modern history of China, whether in the Great Leap and the Cultural Revolution, or other radical political or economic movements. All of these radical movements witness the tyranny of majority, chaos and extreme inefficiency in an economy based upon public ownership, as well as millions of unnecessary deaths during merely twenty years.

It seems to me that both this oversimplification and the accompanying revolutionary agenda may derive in part from an anthropological ambivalence which can be found not only in Fitzgerald’s, but in not few Marxist critical studies of capitalism. On the one hand, they hold a rather pessimistic vision of human nature, both in its moral and epistemological dimensions. On the other hand, asking for a revolutionary (rather than a reformist) change of existing institutions implies and presupposes an equally unfounded trust in human nature. This explains also the role of prophet they sometimes play – being lonely (reflecting their lack of confidence in their peers) and radical (reflecting at least their lack of prudent consideration of possible chaos brought about by human vice during a revolutionary change) at the same time.

In short, my disagreement with some of Fitzgerald’s points of view here, does not indicate that I have problem with its underlying proposition, that is concerned with the problematic nature of a series of modern categories invented in the European Enlightenment. Rather, it concerns the presence of an ambiguously dualistic structure within its thinking, as well as Fitzgerald’s failure sufficiently to analyse critically his own presumptions about human nature. To bring this response to a close and to summarize, I suggest rewriting a whole paragraph from Fitzgerald’s piece, changing his targets into those (in italics) which have been eagerly looked forward to by many socialists in the Western world. And the rewritten paragraph can then be seen as my standpoint toward the political-economic system of China during 1956-1978:

“How is it that we are dominated by such obviously irrational systems of socialist resource allocation? How is it that the supposed equality in resource allocation promised by Marxist political economy results in such obvious inefficiencies and waste? How is it that we can continue to believe in Marxist political economy when the evidence is so obviously contradictory? And why do we persist with the obvious irrationality of public property accumulation as the dominant orthodox dogma of salvation?”

Timothy Fitzgerald, Abolishing Politics, Foreword, pp. 1-16

This is the foreword of Timothy Fitzgerald‘s forthcoming book, Abolishing Politics.


Some readers might take the expression in the title, Abolishing Politics, as a description of what is happening before our eyes, though not necessarily with our consent. That is to say, that on a certain historically informed understanding of the meaning of the word ‘politics’, it is indeed being abolished. I say this especially from the viewpoint of the UK, EU and USA, though I suspect it might be a much wider perception globally. In this foreword I want to summarise the kind of recent developments, especially since 2003, that some readers might suppose I am referring to in the title, and then to take the story much deeper.

Readers may also ask themselves why and how arguments under the title Abolishing Politics can be connected to critical research on religion. My work began with problems in the meaning of ‘religion’, problems that are fairly widely discussed at least among academics, and it has led me to see an intimate connection between those problems and the parallel problems with the category ‘politics’. The close connections, both historical and conceptual, between the general categories ‘religion’ and ‘politics’ will become evident as I proceed.

Though I tend to focus on the Euro-American origins and deployments of the term ‘politics’, these are not only Euro-American issues, but global ones. This is because I take the historical origin of the discourse on politics to be located in the cognitive revolution of the ‘European enlightenment’, which had a colonial and neocolonial context. In this sense, and from the viewpoint of academics and others who are aware of the persistent problem of global Eurocentric legacies, politics and religion can be thought of as ‘postcolonial remains’, and not as eternal facts about human existence. I also hope that the argument in the pages that follow will resonate with the project of Chakrabarti in Provincializing Europe.

The reader might reasonably take ‘politics’ to refer to the Euro-American parliamentary democracies of sovereign nation states, with their competing party systems, voting procedures, and governments elected to represent the will of the people. In this narrative, politics is that domain of activity related to secular government where conflicts of interest are debated, adjudicated and resolved according to rational and transparent democratic procedures. The French, British, Americans and other Europeans exported these values and institutions to countries they deemed ‘backward’, and which in their view required tutelage in democracy, transparency and progress. ‘Liberty’ and ‘equality’ have been useful tools in these imperial projects, and have been strongly associated with what Adam Smith in The Wealth of Nations referred to as ’the progress of nations’. He saw the European nations, and especially Britain or England, as at the head of this putative progress. This idea was a major constituent of the thinking of the Enlightenment.

However, over the past few decades, and perhaps especially since the Invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the sub-prime mortgage Bank crash of 2008, widespread cognitive dissonance has arisen, reflected especially in the growing popularity of the alternative media, a veritable clash between what we as average citizens have always been told and assumed as common sense reality, and a host of evidential facts that simply do not fit the official narratives.

The mainstream media, whose function in manufacturing consent has long been effectively exposed by Noam Chomsky and others, had difficulty in processing the ‘in-your-face’ inconsistencies and contradictions of the politicians. Statistics suggest that the mode of discourse and style of presentation of the mainstream media has lost its grip on many of us ordinary citizens, generating widespread cognitive dissonance between their stage-managed productions of news and people’s actual experience. The news agencies no longer manage to manufacture consent very effectively. Both the invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the bank bailouts of 2008 were difficult to present as rational responses consistent with widely held standards of truth-telling and justice.

It is as though a theatre curtain was inadvertently opened and the audience were given a glimpse of the special effects machinery, and the backstage personnel going about their work unaware that they were suddenly being observed. The public got a brief but unambiguous view of the double lives of leading politicians and their hidden networks; of secretive, unelected backroom committees and cliques who exercise power. Devious actors were caught with their pants down and in panic screamed for the curtain to be closed again. To extend the metaphor, the media, which acts as the cover-up for the backstage machinations, was itself caught in turmoil and contradiction. The expression ‘the deep state’, which might have sounded like a conspiracy theory once, now looks like a conspiracy. Prime Ministers and Presidents have come to look like talking dolls wheeled out to utter slogans and soundbites written for them by public relations experts on behalf of billionaires, banksters, petro-chemical corporations, and the arms industry.

Many people experienced cognitive dissonance between what we have been continually told by politicians and the mainstream media since childhood, and the actual facts that they have suddenly been unable to conceal and control, and have even themselves inadvertently blurted out in confirmation. The advent of the alternative media has been a rich source in providing alternative journalism, factual research, discussion and debate, and this has made the widespread cognitive dissonance experienced by many people to be greatly evident.

In 2003 spying organisations claiming to protect our rights and our democratic principles were found to be supplying false information so that our governments could invade another sovereign nation state, Iraq. They did this effectively to justify what many consider to have been an act of mass murder against many thousands of Iraqi people, an atrocity masquerading as a war, as Baudrillard suggested in The Gulf War did not Take Place. Despite the egregious horror and crime of the destruction of the Twin Towers – and few doubt that it was a horror and a crime – the stories justifying the ‘war on terror’ seemed to many people to be irrational, disingenuous and even sinister. There is much evidence to show that the integrity of the United Nations was openly scorned by the US and Britain with the presentation of false information. When the UN Security Council refused to rubber stamp the impending atrocity, Britain and the USA went ahead with it anyhow. This cynical act of aggression, by two of the countries that like to boast most about their democratic political maturity, appeared in the media as an entertainment spectacular, a simulacra, provoking in many people widespread levels of cognitive dissonance. A corrollary of cognitive dissonance is disgust.

In 2008 the banking system virtually collapsed due to fraud and corruption in the sub-prime mortgage debacle. The criminal activities of the highest-paid bankers were consequently rewarded by our leaders with massive bailouts; while those without property, or not much, were and still are punished under a policy named ‘austerity’. The economic doctrines, in particular neo-classical economic models, which had been unable to foresee the crash or conceptualise its causes were now being used to advocate the cure. These policies have created much untold and on-going misery for millions of ordinary people. Indeed, much of the rhetoric of politicians and others ‘experts’ who were given airtime to express their views revealed an extraordinary and frightening degree of contempt and even hatred for middle and working class people, for the disabled and the unemployed. Meanwhile the media did its level best to divert attention from this massive criminal activity, and focused instead on the supposed feckless dependency of the poor and disabled, and the problem of illegal immigration, which itself has been largely caused by the aggressive military action of the US, Britain and other NATO allies in Iraq, Afganistan, Libya, and Syria.

While the US and its NATO allies were blowing the legs off children in countries they deemed ready for ‘development’ and ‘progress’, or doing remote control assassinations of the supposed enemies of ‘western democracy and freedom’, or conducting illegal renditions and torture on people who just happened to be available for kidnap, the mainstream media bored the public with a stream of discussions and debates between career mediocrities about ‘political and economic realities’ and ‘the national interest’. They talked down to ordinary citizens, and they still do, but fewer and fewer people are listening.

One could refer to the simulacra of typical news and current affairs productions of the mainstream media as ‘limited and limiting mode of discourse’. Some of the economists and financial experts who tried to convince the public that they had a grip on the really real of ‘the economy’, and politicians who adopted the posture of ‘political leadership’ to justify taxing the poor to benefit the wealthy shareholders of private corporations, faded from the scene with a departing smirk and were rewarded with lucrative positions on the boards of those same corporations.

This ugliness was propagated and condoned by the mainstream media, whose over-paid and over-rated personnel condescended to the general public with simplified narratives, disingenuous interviewing techniques, and a childish level of analysis. Again, I suggest the term ‘limited and limiting mode of discourse’. The cognitive dissonance experienced by many people between what they were being told, and what they could discover from alternative sources, or what was happening to them in their own lives, was and still is presumably deeply uncomfortable.

In both 2003 and 2008 our illusions about our democratic systems of accountability were deeply shaken. The operations of the deep state – in the USA, UK and EU – in secret deals with IT corporations and arms manufacturers made parliamentary democracy suddenly look rather meaningless, a screen of theatrical illusion to hide the real centres of power and the real interests being served. This might lead one to think that what we typically mean by ‘politics’ is being abolished before our eyes. It undoes belief in what many would typically and reasonably think is the meaning of ‘politics’.

There are many elements of the story I have mentioned so far that still seem unbelievable. After all, I am inevitably recounting generalizations. It is surely true that there are many decent and honourable persons who work as politicians, civil servants, corporate employees, and in the mainstream media. There are also many charlatans and purveyors of unsourced narratives in the alternative media. A black and white picture of good and evil is naïve, disingenuous and dangerous. Scepticism on all fronts is a healthy and rational attitude. Furthermore, the tendency to react against the power of the state and its propaganda machine can too easily lead to a facile analysis based on personal contempt. Many readers will (in my view rightly) wish to avoid characterising the issues in terms of ‘evil individuals’. We are better served instead by paying attention to the dominant system of values and categories by which we are all conditioned and which frame our public discourse, and analysing dispassionately the modes of institutionalisation that make the facile doctrines of ‘liberal’ modernity appear like natural common sense.

These are important reservations and caveats, and my own arguments that follow in subsequent sections are very much focused on the system of ‘liberal’ categories that dominate our public discourse and form much of our subjectivity. By looking at the closed system, its agencies of reproduction, and its tendency towards totalitarian dictatorship by a small elite, we avoid the dangerous assumption that ‘we’ are good and ‘they’ are bad. In the sections that follow I will argue that there is a very real sense in which ‘we are all in it together’, and to miss this point would be to misunderstand my motives.

True, the slogan ‘we are all in it together’ has been counter-intuitively deployed, in the UK at least, by a government that relentlessly pursues policies that make the opposite true. By maintaining our analysis at the level of the system into which we are all inducted to varying degrees, we can more effectively see that the politicians, public relations experts, large corporate shareholders, business managers, media producers and presenters, are not ‘evil individuals’. They are like you and me, and not necessarily happy, even if they pretend to be. They and we have been conditioned to think in certain tropes, cliches and unanalysed presuppositions that constitute a system. The system operates us rather than the other way round.

By focusing on the system of categories of the understanding that dominates our public discourse and educational priorities, we can avoid explanations based on vindictiveness towards individuals, and see that our rulers are themselves conditioned by a self-enclosed and circular system, and are unable to think outside of it. There is a real sense in which they are as trapped as we are. In this way, it is difficult not to be reminded (without taking the analogy too far) of George Orwell’s warnings and predictions of totalitarian government in 1984. There are some significant differences but the parallels are there too. Government by a secretive elite and its covert agents, that perpetually spies on its own citizens to curb independent thinking and ‘thoughtcrime’; the never-ending ‘war on terror’ which is used to justify mass surveillance and to intimidate open and democratic debate; the increasing deployment of a dumbed down language of slogans and soundbites empty of intellectual or moral substance; the relentless and yet avoidable depression of neighbourhoods in once prosperous nations; the increasing levels of arbitrary state violence at home and abroad; the global displacement of peoples and the growth of permanent refugee camps the size of small towns; the in-your-face lies and contradictions that are presented as Truth; these might understandably remind us of the Orwellian nightmare. We might feel justified in thinking that ‘politics’, on any usual understanding of that word, is being abolished before our eyes.

One way of dealing with the cognitive dissonance is to treat it as a temporary aberration in our democratic traditions. This could look to any reasonable observer like a historically recent shift of power from a democratic parliament or congress to a state of emergency engendered by an act of god or by some unpredictable quirk of fate. Politics is real, but is going through a bad time and will eventually normalise. The problem with this account is that a) the atrocities in Iraq, Afganistan, Libya and Syria have been deliberately undertaken, ostensibly and counter-intuitively in ‘the war on terror’; this in turn may have generated much of the terrorism that ostensibly this ‘war’ was supposed to eliminate; b) the crash of 2008 was predicted by at least twelve economists independently of each other, but their predictions and warnings were ignored by those who had the power to change the policies, such as the elites who run the US Federal Reserve. This ‘drawing-back-of-the-curtain experience’ seems to have affected many people, which helps to explain the widespread abandonment of the mainstream media and the growth in the popularity of alternative channels.

An extension of this view is that international politics is also being abolished before our eyes. While national politics is supposedly concerned with the will of the people of the sovereign nation state, international politics is concerned with relations between such states. This understanding of politics as concerning relations between competing sovereign nation states is exemplified (for example) by the importance given to national foreign policy by our elected governments, by traditions of national diplomacy, by international law, by organisations such as the United Nations, and by the academic specialism called International Relations. In this context, ‘abolishing politics’ might be thought to be a description of the beginning of the end of the nation state itself, and of the system of national sovereignties that constitutes ‘international politics’.

While it is true that new nation states are occasionally still being brought into existence, there is arguably a more powerful process of transcending the nation state in an age of giant private multinational corporations, including banks and investment companies, and the almost instantaneous digitalised transfer of vast sums of capital that the old national governments can no longer control. This situation is putting a great and possibly terminal strain on the meaning of the sovereign nation state.

In this context the expression ‘abolishing politics’ might reasonably be taken as exemplified by the formation of the European Union, its centralization of power in Brussels, and its effective governance by a troika of unelected bureaucrats (the European Commission) and unelected bankers (the ECB and the IMF), representing the interests of very wealthy property accumulators who lurk discreetly in the background in their luxurious nests. The most evident example of this in Europe today is the crushing of the Greek people who are unable to ‘repay’ the interest on loans made available by global financial institutions. The unscrupulousness of the European elite – the bureaucrats, bankers and public relations experts, who at other times hail Greece as the Cradle of Democracy, has been another source of cognitive dissonance.

On this view, the old politics of the sovereign nation state, both internal and external, is being abolished in Europe and replaced by the interests of a class of major shareholders of giant global corporations, represented by unscrupulous and cynical politicians and unelected bureaucrats. The facile presenters and public relations experts of the mainstream media, the generators of simulacra, have failed to deal adequately with the cognitive dissonance between the official narratives and the alternative attempts to get closer to the actual events. They are failing to manufacture consent.

These thoughts, in a very summary fashion, are of great relevance to the title ‘abolishing politics’, but do not adequately sum up my intentions. For one thing, we might prefer to believe that the ‘curtain-was-drawn-back’ metaphor is merely a temporary aberration from a historical norm. The view I will argue here is that our ‘democracy’ has always been largely illusory, and that real power in liberal capitalist power formations has always been managed by a combination of substantial private interests, banks, senior civil servants, career politicians, and controllers of agencies of information. Though there may historically have been high ethical standards sometimes in some of the wealthy shareholders, politicians and civil servants, they have always served a system, an imaginary, invented to represent large capital interests. Within this internalised paradigm, ethical principles from an earlier Christian paternalism might still have lingered. However, in the dominant discourse of scientific objectivity and the really real of liberal political economy, moral and aesthetic values have continually been marginalised as ‘subjective opinion’ and ‘private taste’.

Yet the myth of democratic capitalism persists despite cognitive dissonance and widespread cynicism about politics and politicians.

A close look at the way the term ‘politics’ is actually deployed in public discourse and by academic political scientists reveals a deep ambiguity. On the one hand, politics is used to refer specifically to the functioning of democratic government within and between liberal secular nation states, and in this sense is presented as the result of modern Enlightenment liberal progress over the backward and barbaric past. On the other hand, politics is also deployed – often by the same people in the same texts and speech acts – with the very generalised meaning of the exercise of power. In this latter usage, everything and anything can be described as ‘political’. If politics means little more than power or conflicts of interest, then it can refer as much to the secretive manipulations of power as to the formal procedures and institutions of elected representative government. But at such a general level it has little meaning. If every exercise of power can be described as politics, then the term becomes hollowed out of any determinate content. This ambiguity of nuance gives the word a deceptive magic, as it can imbue a historically specific power formation with an appearance of universal validity.

In the sections that follow, I will argue that modern liberal representative democracy and the secular nation state were invented in the first place by and for ‘men of substance’. Despite the language of universal rights, the theorists of modern representative government and the founders of modern nation states were largely male private property acumulators, frequently Nonconformist Christians, who typically did not intend that the universal rights they proclaimed to the world would be shared by women, or by the landless labourers and colonised subjects who worked on their plantations and in their factories. They did not usually intend their servants and slaves to share such rights either. Property rights and the franchise were strictly limited. Of all the rights proclaimed in various declarations and written constitutions, the right to accumulate private property without interference has arguably been the most protected. The demand for equality before the law was in the first place a defence of private property against the arbitrary predations of monarch and church. Private property has been continually referred to since the 18th century as a sacred right. Politics, both the word and the fictional narratives that discursively sustain it as an imaginary, is a modern invention that, by way of sustained rhetorical repetition since the late 17th century, has come to appear as part of our collective common sense reality. But for the kind of reasons I have mentioned, there is an increasing degree of cognitive dissonance about what politics actually means.

Politics, however it may appear to our subjective consciousness, is not a neutral standalone category with a one-to-one relation to an independent objective reality. It is not a simple universal fact of human relationships. Like ‘the state’, it is itself a power category with ideological work to do. It is a reified part of the machinery that generates the illusion of equal participation and equal rights, in a neutral forum of rational decision-making.

Furthermore, politics as a discourse arose in conjunction with a number of other categories of liberal secular Enlightenment modernity. I will argue throughout the following sections that ‘politics’ is one of a large number of categories invented since the late 17th century that constitute a great deal of ‘modern’ consciousness. One of these inventions is ‘religion’, a point that may surprise those readers who assume that ‘religion’ is also, like ‘politics’, as old as the hills. ‘Modern’, ‘liberal’, ‘progress’ and ‘secular nation state’ are other newly invented categories that are strongly connected to ‘politics’ in public discourse. These categories each have their own origins and history of deployment. Some are old words given new meanings; others are newly coined. Some were developed as categories of classification. Others were invented to express new visions of the world, and rhetorical exhortations about how the world ought to be. However, these general categories have come together in rhetorical formations with ideological intent. The idea of the ‘progress of nations’, for example, or of ‘modern progress’, or of ‘the developed nations’, has waved a magic wand over the predations of property accumulators and made them appear as normal, inevitable, and in tune with human nature and common sense. We cannot understand the rise of liberal political economics as a supposed ‘science’ without linking it to the legitimation of enclosed and stolen common land both at home and abroad, and to the large-scale commodification of human labour.

To invent modern progress is also to invent the backward past. To invent ‘religions’ is also to make a space for the supposedly factual science of free markets, which have no more observable reality than the ‘superstitions’ they were intended to replace. Given the severe problems of definition, we cannot say that these terms stand in any clear relation to anything distinct and objective in the world. They may appear objective, but they conceal value judgments and they have little clear content.

Some of these categories of the liberal understanding, which emerged from, and constitute, ‘the Enlightenment’, are more convincingly seen as the visionary (rhetorical) declarations of interest and intention of male private property owners. They are idealistic proclamations to serve their ‘liberty’ interests. Liberty is a term that receives close attention in some of the sections that follow. Like ‘progress’, it is a deeply deceptive term in the system. Over decades of repetition, routinization, and institutionalization, they have long since come to appear as descriptive of objective factors, processes or domains in the real world. They have been reified. The historical emergence of these new categories has been largely forgotten or repressed from consciousness and marginalised from public debate. Even historians often fail to question the origin and deployment of these categories, and indeed themselves use them as if it is self-evident what they mean. We have all internalised them as hegemonic presuppositions, and they organise and determine our thinking and observations, automatically and largely unconsciously.

Another way of putting this is to say I am attempting to describe the historical emergence since the 17th century of a distinctively new dominant paradigm, of which ‘politics’ is one of the most significant constituent categories. This paradigm could also be called a ‘dominant ideology’. It is not ‘out there’ but is operating in our thinking and writing now. Two modern neologisms for this powerful system of categories are ‘Liberalism’ and ‘Individualism’, both dating from the 19th century. The term ‘liberal’ is another of those words with a magical power of deception, like ‘liberty’ and ‘progress’. There are also a range of closely connected expressions, including ‘Enlightenment reason’, ‘scientific instrumental rationality’, the ‘progress of nations’, ‘the system of sovereign nation states’, ‘liberal capitalism’, and ‘classical or liberal political economy’. The difficulty is that all these expressions are constituted by problematic terms that are themselves part of the system of thought and behaviour I am attempting to critically deconstruct. I am therefore admittedly caught in a circular system of meanings that is protected (or which protects itself) from critique.

Gradually throughout the sections that follow, I will analyse the historical origins of some of these modern categories of the understanding, their mutual interconnections, the rhetorical and institutional techniques that transform them into commonplaces, and the powerful private property interests that they have mainly represented since their first imagining.

To start with, I will argue that the noun-word ‘politics’ was invented and narrated (in English at least) in the 17th century to refer to a distinct domain of human action, a specific kind of government, separated from another imaginary domain ‘religion’, that had not existed or been imagined before. John Locke, who was one of the most influential Enlightenment theorists, argued against the orthodoxy of his day that there is – or ambiguously that there ought to be – an essential difference between religion and government. It was in this context that he deployed the terms politics or the political society. The term ‘religion’ of course existed in the vernacular North European languages such as German, Dutch, English and French, but meant something radically different in the 16th and 17th centuries. The United States of America and its sovereign constitution of 1787 and 1790/1 was arguably the first nation state that exemplified this historically recent idea of politics or the political society.

‘Politics’ and the ‘modern secular state’ were invented in the first place to represent the private property interests and rights of Christian white males, many of them Nonconformist. This class arose in a world of expanding colonial opportunities. Nonconformity to the dominant form of Christian hierarchy, or Christian confessional state, or ancient regime with its sacred monarch, is no longer so much of an issue today, though in historical terms it is not that long since hierarchical Christian institutions dominated Europe, and had considerable influence on the government of colonial empires. Today, the class of major property accumulators has globalised with the spread of capitalist institutions amd the so-called ‘liberalisation’ of markets. It is an inherently globalising class, as can be seen in statistics on wealth distribution. And yet it is still mainly a class of white men, concentrated especially in the USA.

Despite the rhetoric of universal rights and ‘progress’ through ‘free markets’ and ‘liberty’, women and propertyless men have had to struggle to get these rights extended, against the violent resistance of those with substantial property. ‘Politics’ remains as it arguably always was, a specific kind of power formation representing men of substance, and protecting their private interests. As a corrollary to this function, politics evolved as a method of controlling those without property. Politics became a form of technical expertise for distracting the attention of ordinary citizens from the actual relations of power through various agencies of propaganda, which in the 20th century came to be called public relations or PR.

The power of this class of male property accumulators originated with a number of interconnected factors. One was the accelerating privatisation of land through ‘enclosure’ of the commons. Though the enclosures in England began in the 16th or even late 15th century, by the time that John Locke was publishing his Treatises on Government in the 1690’s they had been rapidly increasing, and continued to do so throughout the 18th and into the 19th century. At the same historical moment there was a proliferation of plantations and colonies, and of profits and opportunities from global trade; the emergence of a global financial industry based on fractional reserve banking; the exploitation of cheap labour including wage labour, bonded labour, indentured servitude, and slave labour; the discovery of new products such as minerals and other materials that could be profitably exploited; technological invention driven by the needs of capital; and other factors. This class of merchants, traders, investment bankers, plantation owners, colonial civil servants, Christian missionaries, agricultural and industrial owner-producers, presented an increasingly powerful challenge to the existing hierarchies of the ancien regime, the sacred monarchs, the Godly Christian commonwealths, and the Christian confessional states. The invention of ‘politics’ was revolutionary, because it threatened and eventually destroyed those ancient feudal hierarchies. It was liberational too, for those with the advantages to benefit.

This class took power as much through cognitive and rhetorical techniques as through violent revolution. Its intellectual leaders have certainly created a revolution in the concept of what it means to be human. One of the new narratives that conveyed these new categories such as ‘politics’ was ‘man in the state of nature’, a fiction that had an elective affinity with the new interests, in that it underpinned the arguments for private property rights and representative government. The myth of ‘man in the state of nature’ is the basis of liberal political economy and, arguably, evolutionary biology. The fiction of the ‘Individual’ as the bearer of ‘natural rights’ (women, poor men and colonised subjects have always had to struggle for rights, and therefore for the right to be ‘Individuals’) entered the mainstream and today is considered a self-evident empirical reality. We are all Individuals today, apparently.

And yet we are not. To be without a passport and a national identity is to be non-person, a dispossessd refugee without a bone fide identity. But membership of a nation state only confers an ‘individual’ identity in a weak and secondary sense. It is ownership of substantial private property, or honorary membership of that class, that confers Individuality. While there are typical contexts in which it feels reasonable to describe people as individuals, the Individual as an ideological construct is associated with all our modern categories – politics, religion, science, economics and law. Even in common usage we never actually observe the ‘Individual’ as an empirical object of observation. It is a metaphysical reification, an abstraction from the organic complexity and inter-relatedness of all life, transformed by propaganda into the supposedly self-evident. It has become a hegemonic category.

The powerful arguments of men like Locke and Montesquieu spread throughout the 18th century among the propertied and intellectual classes, became popularised, and worked as propaganda over many decades. We cannot understand the American or French revolutions without them. When I say ‘propaganda’, I mean it in a way analogous to what the Catholic Church has meant by propaganda, ‘the propagation of the gospel’. The early storytellers that invented what came to be called ‘liberalism’ in the 19th century believed these stories to be true in some significant sense, and it suited their interests to believe them. The Christian doctrine of salvation became gradually transformed if not entirely replaced by a doctrine of salvation through the accumulation of private property, which throughout the 19th century was referred to as ‘sacred’. After two or three centuries of elaboration and dissemination, these narratives have acquired a common sense normality that it seems, or has seemed until recently, counter intuitive to question. Their origins have been largely forgotten. My purpose is to dig them up and bring them to critical consciousness.

It may appear counter-intuitive to say that such normal everyday concepts as ‘politics’, ‘religion’, ‘nation state’, ’science’, ‘economics’ or ‘liberty’ were newly fashioned to represent the interests of a class of (mostly male) property accumulators. It sounds too cynical to say it, or too reductive. Yet in Christian Europe until historically recently there existed a radically different dominant imaginary that was constructed and internalised by different paradigmatic categories, and policed by different orders of power. These new categories of the modern liberal enlightenment were emergent in the 17th and 18th centuries, and have come to dominate public and intellectual discourse for much of the 19th and throughout the 20th centuries. They are today so widely used and internalised that they appear as though they have always been with us. They constitute much of our world. They constitute much of our subjective sense of who we are. They appear as neutral ‘natural’ categories that have a practical, non-ideological utility in our classification of an objective world. They seem as old as the hills, and embedded in human life. Today the differences between ‘religion’ and ‘politics’, or ‘religion’ and ‘science’, seem too obvious to question. We believe we cannot communicate or live without the language of politics, the state, science, economics or religion, and many others.

However, once we start to pay attention to such categories and the way they are connected, severe problems arise. For one thing we begin to realise that they have not always been with us, we have forgotten their origins, and that our ancestors and the people we colonised thought about the world in very different ways and in different languages. Even time and space were differently conceptualised and differently experienced. More surprisingly than this, I am going to show that these general terms have little clear referential meaning. Terms like ‘religion’, ‘science’, ‘politics’ or ‘economics’ are deployed in academic texts and in public rhetoric as though they have essential differences; and yet are so abstract, and can contain so much contingent baggage, that they point to nothing in particular. Though they organise our lives in significant ways, yet they are resistant to clear definition and have no clear referent in the empirical world.

How could terms with no clear referential meaning seem so intuitively obvious and necessary to us? If the meaning and referent of terms such as politics, economics, nation states, religions, markets, or progress is as elusive as I claim, then how could they be the objects of academic study and common sense deployment in the organisation of modern life? This is what I hope to explain.

My motives for this project may also be questioned. My motives arise from the cognitive dissonance that I have experienced both in my academic life and in the context of the catastrophes earlier mentioned. In the academic context, I studied religion for several years and came out of my studies not actually knowing what religion is, not knowing what the topic of study is. That is a perplexing state to be in, but generally a productive form of cognitive dissonance. It led me to question my own tools of description and analysis, and the specialist divisions of faculties and subject areas of modern universities. Of course I am not alone in this. Writers such as Talal Asad, Wilfred Cantwell Smith, Jonathan Z. Smith, Russell McCutcheon and others have broached the question of ‘religion’ as a category, raising it to critical academic consciousness.

However, there have also been more violent and disturbing sources of cognitive dissonance, some of which I referred to earlier. These did not begin in 2003 but they became unbearably intense from around that time. Endless wars, invasions, the incessant destruction of habitats and ancient human communities in the corporate grab for profitable mineral resources, the growth of a permanent refugee crisis, the global trade in children, unnecessary destruction of useful and environmentally friendly technologies, the obscene gap between the rich and the poor and the evident falsity of the ‘trickle-down’ theory of liberal economics, the sheer ugliness and dehumanising scale of modern cities, the anti-democratic authoritarian systems of control in most of the institutions of so-called ‘democracies’, the irrationality of our transport systems, these and other factors have evoked in me – and I believe in many other people – a cognitive dissonance between what we are told by our teachers, by the politicians and by the media, and the actual facts that are thrust before our eyes.

Politics is one of a configuration of categories that, operating in a system, has created a collective illusion in public life and subjective consciousness. We could paradoxically call this the ‘Enlightenment Illusion’, and it is an illusion that is unravelling before our eyes. The modern categories that operate in this configuration – including paradoxically the term ‘modern’ itself – have been invented or coopted at specific historical moments, and rhetorically woven into an increasingly dominant discourse through the power of association and binary substitution, propagated by a number of powerful agencies including those called ‘sciences’, and smoothed into well-worn channels by way of endless repetition and unconscious internalisation. This configuration of very abstract categories has long become transformed into our common sense view of the world. To question them is to disturb our subjective sense of being a human person. It is also to challenge our careers.

It is obvious from the summary account that I have given here that I am indebted to Marx. However, to suppose I am only reproducing a Marxist argument of the rise of capitalism is to miss my point. No, I am not a Marxist. Yes, I am indebted to Marx for his critique of liberal classical political economy. I am not one of those liberal intellectuals who condescend to Marx, and attempt to marginalise him from serious discussion. He was in my view a much deeper thinker than most of his liberal critics, especially those who believe in the myth of ‘free markets’. From Marx we get one of the most powerful concepts of critique or critical thinking, which seems lamentably absent from the thinking of many career politicians, academics, and the people who run the mainstream media. I also find his concept of ‘primitive accumulation’ or ‘accumulation by dispossession’ indispensible, and deploy it in my own argument here. Furthermore, some of the most cogent contemporary critiques of Neoliberalism, and the contradictions of liberal and neoliberal capitalism that are clearly manifest today, are being articulated by Marxist public intellectuals, especially in the USA.

However, ‘Marxism’ and ‘socialism’ are among the configuration of new categories of the understanding that constitute modernity, and which I am attempting to describe and analyse. Socialism as a concept and a term is as much a product of the Enlightenment as Liberalism (and National Socialism). ‘Marxism’, and especially Marxist-Leninism, is embedded in the same circle of paradigmatic categories that constitute what it seeks to critique and subvert. One of these is the trope of ‘secular scientific progress’, which, with connected categories such as ‘development’ and ‘underdevelopment’, is an important part of the myth I am eager to subvert. Liberalism and Marxism, while significantly opposed at one level, are part of the same, shared paradigm of enlightenment modernity at a deeper level. Marxists are more aware of what they oppose in liberal capitalism than in what they share and reproduce. They do not generally discern the mutually parasitic relationship of their theoretical positionality to what came to be called liberalism or classical political economy in the late 18th and early 19th century. Marxists critique capitalism while deploying many of the same categories that have made capitalism look like normal common sense reality. They have one foot in and one foot out. This is why I argue in subsequent sections that Marxian or any other ‘socialism’ is bound to fail in its opposition to capitalism. There is both a genuine debt to Marx, but also a critique of ‘Marxism’ as part of the problem.

And here I come to a further and final point. What began as a new configuration of categories for re-organising our understanding of the world has become transformed into a system of signs in an automatic signalling system, internalised into subjective consciousness. New categories that have been the product of conscious philosophical and theoretical coinage since the 17th century have long become commonplaces that organise our assumptions about reality. These categories of the understanding are not ‘innate’ but are hegemonic. They have become transformed into a system of signs that operates our thinking, without us being aware of them as a system. We use them spontaneously and effortlessly, as though they come out of nowhere. As signs operating in an unconscious and automatic system they long lost any convincing connection to any observable empirical reality. This signalling system constructs reality in public rhetoric, in educational priorities, in policy making and administration, and in subjective experience. These largely empty signs – politics, religion, economics, nation states, secular science, progress, free markets, ‘Individuals’, and many others that I discuss in the following sections – organise our understanding and experience without us being fully aware of them. They have become normalised and naturalised. They have been institutionalised and are protected by law and constitution. They have acquired a normal, natural, and spontaneous status in our vocabulary and our communications. They structure the subject areas and faculties of the universities. Academics spend their lives and invest careers researching and teaching ‘religion’ or ‘politics’ or ‘social studies’ or ‘political economy’ without seriously questioning their basic categories. These categories, operating as largely empty signs, classify and organise our world as though they are neutral and self-evident. They are embedded in our institutional practices and structures. We rarely question them. They are protected from scrutiny.

It is by and large an unconscious signalling system that operates us, rather than being operated by us. While critical analysis of these signs reveals that they have no clearly delineated meanings, and are in fact indefinable, they remain partly hidden from view by continual circular displacement, repetitive association and binary opposition. In the following sections I show how this works. When one of these signs is challenged, for example by a call for its definition, the definition will itself be achieved through the substitution of other signs that are equally indefinable. It is a circular process of indefinite and endless substitution.

My work in fact began with problems in the category ‘religion’; after 40 years of searching I still cannot find any agreement on its definition. So much is and has been included in this hold-all category that it has no clear content. There are many people globally who say they are studying ‘religion’, but the range of topics is vast, and there is no agreement about the criteria for deciding what can and cannot be included or excluded. If there is no topic, then how and why does the category operate?

This in turn has implications for what we mean by the ‘non-religious secular’. We refer effortlessly to secular politics, secular science, secular modernity, the secular university, or the secular nation state. If we are unable to say clearly what we mean by ‘religion’, then how could the ‘non-religious secular’ have any clear meaning either? Yet most modern Constitutions say there must be a distinction, they must be kept separate. Jefferson famously referred to the need for a ‘wall of separation’. But what is being kept separate from what? In my publications I have shown through close critical reading of many texts how the religion-politics binary operates automatically as an either-or oscillation. It is either religion or it is politics, it cannot be both. If the two get confused then violent mayhem results. To mix religion and politics ferments an assault by backward fanatics on the rational order of things. The authors are unthinkingly reproducing these binaries and allowing them to organise their descriptions and analyses. The religion-science binary is another prominent example of this essentialising rhetorical oscillation. The religion: non-religion binary in its various forms operates in academic texts and in public rhetoric as a largely empty, either-or series of dichotomies that have no clear and distinctive content on either side, and yet which have the power to organise our perceptions, our actions and our institutions. Combined with other largely empty oscillating signs in a circular signalling system – for example, civility and barbarity, progress and backwardness, developed and undeveloped – the fundamental binary of religion-nonreligion can take us to war or at least be deployed to justify war.

There is a parallel problem in agreeing on any clear criteria for deciding what can and cannot be included as ‘politics’. I have been unable to find any definition of ‘politics’ that is not either circular (political science is the study of political institutions), or an invalid universalisation based on tautology (politics has always been a constituent part of all human groups, but only in the modern period of scientific secular progress have we found a word for it, or been sufficiently advanced in our conceptual apparatus to clearly identify it). Yet ‘politics’ cannot be identified. No amount of pointing will do the trick. It is not the kind of thing that can be observed. There are no clear observation statements that can find ‘it’. Similar things can be said for ‘the economy’ and ‘nature’. As I will show, ‘nature’ is one of the great mystifying categories of modernity, appearing as self-evident and yet empty of determinate content.

Modern categories of the understanding, which have a common history of emergence since the 17th century, now appear as if they are ‘in the nature of things’. Yet when we dig them out and examine them, they each appear as hold-all, universalising categories that are virtually empty of concrete reference. They have come to operate in consciousness as signs in an automatic signalling system that produces and reproduces a dominant discourse and construction of ‘reality’. They organise our public institutions and our subjective consciousness, and yet no-one can say precisely what they mean or what distinctive aspect of the world they pick out.

By looking at our dominant collective representations in this way, we gain something important. It makes sense of the cognitive dissonance that so many of us experience between the claims of politicians and the media and the irrational way our human world is organised. It helps us understand how an ideology becomes hegemonic, and why endless war and the rapacious plundering of the earth for private profit appears as inevitable, even legitimate, confers status and prestige, or is simply the way the world is. We can begin to understand why so much of the destruction of the world that is occurring before our eyes seems unstoppable. We can begin to understand the sense of self-entitlement that is such a fixed trait of those who own and manage the global corporations. We can begin to understand the cynicism and lack of public morality that characterises many politicians and corporate leaders.

The masters of the universe who control so much of our lives are not as free as they might like to think. They are not really in control of anything much, and certainly not their own thought processes. They are operated – largely unconsciously – by a closed, circular system of signs that organises their ambitions and projects, and determines their range of thinkable assumptions, presuppositions, and predispositions. It is a system that constitutes the limits of their – and our – ability to think. It seems noticeable that many of the very prominent public figures with the most expensive and prestigious educational backgrounds, and who have most easily acquired powerful roles in making public policy, seem the least equipped with the ability to think critically, and to see the inherent contradictions in their public policy decisions. The billionaire entrepreneurs may be brilliant at developing and selling IT, AI, cybernetics and genetics; but paradoxically they do not know what programming operates and drives them. Crucially, we cannot change direction and bring to an end the global disorder that is before our eyes and under our noses until we begin to question the sign system itself, the automatic signalling system that constructs much of our own subjectivity, and bring it comprehensively into collective consciousness. In this context, politics begins to appear as part of our problem, and not as the solution.

Forthcoming Sections:

Sections 1-7 (pages 1–20)

[1] Introduction: the problem with ‘politics’

[2] Politics as ‘in the nature of things’? Or politics as defining ‘liberal modernity’?

[3] Abolishing ‘politics’ as a counter-narrative

[4] Modern categories as signs in a signalling system (see also section 9)

[5] black::white; Male::female; left-right-centre spectrum (Introduction)

[6] ‘politics’, ‘science’, and the spectrum of liberal categories of the understanding

[7] ‘Politics’, ‘nations’, and ‘liberalisms’ in different European Languages and specific contexts: a theoretical and methodological problem

Sections 8-11 (pages 21-42)

[8] Aristotle’s Politeia and modern Politics

[9] Liberal categories of the understanding as an automatic signalling system

[10] Nature, natural, matter, the real word, solidity, physicality:: Supernatural, God, gods, spirit, immaterial, other world

[11] ‘religion’ and ‘politics’ as co-inventions

Sections 12-14 (pages 43-58)

[12] Christian civility and pagan barbarity: secular civility and religious barbarity

[13] Modern history and liberal power

[14] the secular liberal university as signalling switchboard

Hermeneutic Elements in the Methodology of Shi‘i Ijtihad: A Talk by Jafar Morvarid

Come and join us for a talk Dr. Jafar Morvarid from the Ferdowski University of Mashhad, Iran who will be visiting us on Tuesday the 4th of April. The will be in Pathfoot building, room A7, from 3.30-5pm.

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In this paper, three concepts including soul, the taste of religion and the purposes of religion would be discussed. Based on the words of jurists and usulists, I show that although these three concepts are fundamental in understanding the religious texts, they do not follow common methods (literal and logical inference). Thus, it seems probable that making use of hermeneutic methods (and hermeneutical turn) can help understand the three above concepts. This is only a brief draft and it does not claim a solid proposition. The meaning of hermeneutics, which is mentioned here is not the conventional meaning of hermeneutics (like those of Schleiermacher / Heidegger / Gadamer). Rather, it is an illumination of this framework, the core of which is the idea of the hermeneutical turn. As a result, my aim here is a dialogue between the disciplines of understanding a religious text among Usuli scholars, and the legacy of hermeneutic approaches. This does not mean the approaches of Usulis is a kind of hermeneutic approach in its strictest sense. Based on the discussions of the Usulis on soul, taste and the purpose of religion, I would try to show the possibilities for such a dialogue.

Jafar Morvarid is an assistant professor of philosophy and Islamic Theology at Ferdowsi University in Iran and Dean of Institute of Short-Term Educations & Sabbaticals, Almustafa University of Mashhad, where he operates different interfaith projects. He has given several lectures on “Interreligious Dialogue: Requirements and Obstacles,” “The Third Interreligious Dialogue between Shi’a Islam and Orthodox Christianity,” and “Interfaith Dialogue between Benedict Christianity and Shi’a” in various universities and communities.


Postcolonial and Subaltern Rethinking of Critical Religion


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The early 20th century formulations of Indian identity involved using the constructions of specific understandings of religion, and gender. Critical Religion (CR) has provided a crucial methodology to understand the workings of these ideological operators in identity formation within such colonial contexts. In this line, CR has rightly shown that constructions of religion/secular, sacred/profane dichotomies enabled the legitimisation of hegemonic colonial discourses. It is crucial for us to look at the question of ‘how’ these appropriations were carried out by the colonised.

Historical archives show conflicting and complex narratives on the indigenous understandings and usage of religion both as an ideological category and as a term. For instance, the archives show that South Indian nationalists often used the terms religion, sacred, secular, science, and profane in their discourses on Hindu/Indian identity. Much as these terms were appropriated, they were not necessarily used as the colonial narratives intended. Thus, whilst secular was criticised as modern, modern here meant materialistic — that is pertaining to materiality such as corporeality (sex), objects (wealth), etc., and therefore, profane). Science was often seen as a ‘Western value’ that potentially contributed to materiality when it was not thoroughly grounded in spirituality as Hindu philosophy was. Sometimes, science was cast aside as ‘not Indian’ . This understanding shifted when science was used to define Hinduism as superior to Western society. Science when grounded in Hindu philosophy was understood as a body of knowledge. Other times nationalists quoted medical knowledge from the ancient texts (for example, Ayurveda and the Vedas) to show that science was embedded in Hindu philosophy.

Thus, Indian nationalistic discourses used the language (terms and categories) of the colonisers to beat them at their own game, as it were. For CR, semantics are important for our understandings of these discourses, but nationalists’ mere use of these terms should not be seen as their adoption of a colonial, Christian understanding of these categories. The nationalists indeed used these terms religion, secular, science, and materialism in some instances that pointed to a colonial understanding of these categories. However, there were other complex ways in which these terms were used. As we can see from the examples give above, these terms had multiple meanings depending on the contexts within which they were used. These also transformed depending on who the discourses were aimed at, whether the colonisers or the subaltern groups. For instance, the regional linguistic nationalism that was a subaltern counter-movement to the hegemonic Indian nationalist movements in South India often advocated the importance of rejection of religion, and embracing science as the objective method of understanding human nature. Strongly grounded in Enlightenment values, these movements, whilst rejecting ‘Hinduism’ as a brahmanical religion, did not reject other faiths because their primarily objective was to hoist a counter-argument to what they saw as brahmanical hegemony. Arguably, the agenda of these movements swayed the way these ideological terms and categories were used.

This emphasizes the fact that we cannot assume that appropriation of the colonial categories were homogenous. We must delve deeper into these movements to provide a contextualized understanding of identity formations. Deconstructing ideological categories and to do away with them might clear the discourses of modernity clouding our understandings of historical, colonial developments. But it does not fully provide a postcolonial subaltern understanding of historical indigenous discourses. To put it simply, the question should not only be whether the term religion was used, and where they learned the term, it is to also ask how the term was used. To not take that into account is to make the mistake of succumbing to the orientalist discourse of a pre-Christian indigenous era when religion and secular were one and the same, and a Christian/colonial indigenous era where these distinctions were introduced, which the nationalists appropriated. This, then, would be a good example of Aditya Nigam argues as a postcoloniality that is an echo of modernity. If we look at the regional anti-colonial discourses, it is obvious that the indigenous nationalists had more agency than that. Subaltern Studies stands as a testimony to it. Perhaps, I should make a point very clear: I am not suggesting that we should abandon Critical Religion (and given the space this blog post is published in, that would be rather ironic!). But, if we are to provide a historical postcolonial subaltern understanding of religion, then we must move beyond (as in, add to) the scope of Critical Religion to listen when the said subaltern speaks. We now have two issues at hand: a) how do we understand the heterogeneity of anti-colonial, and nationalistic discourses; b) how do we listen when the subaltern engages with these heterogenous anti-colonial, and nationalist discourses?

In an article soon to be published by Sikh Formations: Religion, Culture, Theory, I have attempted to answer the first question using Dipesh Chakrabarty’s now famous theorisation of histories. Chakrabarty theorises History 1 as the ‘universal history of capital’ that abstracts labor as a function that is removed from its contexts, and Histor(ies) 2(s) as ‘numerous other tendencies . . . intimately intertwined with History 1 . . . to arrest the thrust of capital’s universal history and help it find a local ground’. At the outset, History 1 and Histor(ies) 2(s) can be seen as polar opposites that History 1 is the secular capital and Histor(ies) 2(s) are the indigenous traditions, i.e., religion. However, as Chakrabarty has shown, Histor(ies) 2(s) are present in History 1 in order for the capital to function; rituals invoking the divine, such as worshipping tools for weaving, etc. Thus, within these indigenous contexts, religion/secular categories, with the emergence of capitalism, does not function dichotomously. Rather the ‘religious’ is embedded in the secular to prevent a total takeover of the secular. However, this theorisation provides tools to understand only certain nationalistic discourses. For example, it points to the phenomenological aspects of orthopraxy. There are such multitude of hegemonic nationalistic discourses that need to be acknowledged to understand how colonial categories were appropriated. Moreover, we must also look at how subaltern groups engaged with these hegemonic discourses – both of the nationalists and the colonisers. After all, it is rather evident that the methodological tools used to understand the hegemonic nationalist discourses cannot be used to understand the engagement between the hegemonic and subaltern groups.

Michael Marten’s theorising of ‘religious alterity’ helps us to provide a better understanding of these discourses.* Discussing the missionary narratives in the Middle East in the early 20th century, Marten argues that the Protestant missionaries’ understood the native practices and faiths as an Otherness, an ‘alterity’, that was somehow ‘religious’ in a way. In other words, Protestant missionaries encountered practices and faiths that they saw as definitely ‘religious’, but understood them as an alterity, by Othering these native practices. Christian missionaries in the colonies were by no means postcolonial or subaltern. Nor were their understandings of indigenous faiths and beliefs. But as Marten argues, it is important to understand moments of Othering ‘whilst . . . hearing and respecting the language used by the individuals being discussed’. How does this work pertaining to the discourses of South Indian nationalists, and the subaltern groups? In using the colonial categories, South Indian nationalists were involved in two forms of Othering – a) towards the colonisers through consistent differentiation between their ‘superior Hinduism’, and the colonial ‘Western values’; b) towards the subaltern groups that challenged their hegemony — here the distinction was drawn between their version of Hinduism and that of the ‘degenerative’ versions of the Others. Within these forms of alterity, the nationalists used ‘religious’ in multitudinous ways some of which have been describe above. I acknowledge the risk of arguing that the nationalist discourses involved Othering the colonisers. At a fundamental level, this would be akin to making a case for ‘occidentalism’. That is certainly not what I am trying to do here. Rather, I am pointing to the indigenous nationalistic discourses that used similar, if not the same, language of alterity used by the colonisers (and the missionaries) to assert their position and agency in the domain of colonial politics. In doing so, they certainly indulged in ‘religious alterity’ with the subaltern groups. Acknowledging this would enable us listen to the language of the nationalists, and accept that they had more agency than what we admitted that they did. Acknowledging this would also provide us with a new methodology to listen to the ways in which subaltern groups responded to such alterity.

* Marten, Michael. “Missionary Interaction as Implicit Religion”. Presented at Implicit Religion conference, Salisbury, 2016. The author kindly shared this with me; I understand it is being prepared for publication.

Why is there still ‘interreligious dialogue’?


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In a blog post written for this website, Michael Marten had pointed out the problems of speaking about ‘interreligious’ dialogue or the almost interchangeable ‘interfaith’ dialogue and has suggested an ‘interhuman’ dialogue instead. The increasing involvement of Humanist groups in ‘interreligious dialogue’ and the success of the book The Faitheist may indicate that the practice of dialogue is developing into the opposite direction: that the number of those feeling themselves represented by the category ‘interreligious dialogue’ or wanting to participate in such events has extended to increasingly include also people who self-identify as ‘non-religious’ (thereby accepting but simultaneously subverting the disputable binary category of ‘religious’ and ‘non-religious’). At the same time, the important criticisms Marten voiced are also increasingly gaining attention:in a very recent book, Muthuraj Swamy, both a scholar and practitioner of ‘interreligious dialogue’ in India, discusses ‘interreligious dialogue’ as an elite project that reinforces and in some cases constructs the very boundaries it seeks to bridge.

Like Swamy, many people who talk about being involved in ‘interreligious dialogue’ do also problematize the category they use, and for matters of transparency, I have to say that this includes myself. When I recently attended an event on the intersection of ‘interfaith’ theory and practise in Rome, the participants of the plenary discussion were introduced as all being both academics and practitioners in ‘interreligious dialogue’, yet almost all of them took, in some form, issue with the term ‘interreligious dialogue’. This was either because dialogue was seen to mean talking instead of acting, or as a general and abstract discussion that fails to get down to the much more specific root of the problems. One participant said that his organisation for a long time did not consider itself as doing ‘interreligious dialogue’ but was simply trying to do the work of the gospel. At another occasion, a leader of an international ‘interfaith’ organization told me that he did not really like the term ‘interreligious dialogue’ because he was critical about trying to influence others on theological grounds and that he preferred the term ‘religious diplomacy’ for his work that tries to bring leaders of different traditions together to make a difference in the world. Another position is that the practice of ‘interreligious dialogue’ is just mission in disguise, and for this it has attracted criticism both from those who ask for an encounter without ulterior motives and those who would like to see a more self-confident and direct missionary approach.

As the category ‘interreligious dialogue’ is taken to be problematic also by practitioners, I am interested in the reasons why they nevertheless use or accept the category. I think one of the reasons is that ‘interreligious dialogue’ can refer to a diversity of social practices without distinguishing among them. It serves as an umbrella term with positive connotations of goodwill, leadership, harmony or peace that is unspecific enough to allow for different actors to come together without having to disclose their precise attitude toward the other and also without the precondition that all actors share the same attitude toward the other. Within this diversity of social practises we can ask what people do in specific cases when they talk about doing ‘interreligious dialogue’.

The power of institutions in dialogue is a very strong factor in the persistence of ‘interreligious’ instead of ‘interhuman’ dialogue. The practice of ‘interreligious dialogue’ is very often done by individuals that represent or refer to an institution in order to present their position as coherent and authoritative. Those who are interested in an exchange of individual interpretations that do not claim to be representative or authoritative for a tradition and its institutions have an important role as innovators but they are usually not in a position to define the terms and conditions of the practice.

During the last months, I have been studying the high-level dialogue of the Catholic Church, particularly the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue (PCID). For the Catholic Church, Catholic-Hindu dialogue does, strictly speaking, not mean the Church’s dialogue with ‘Hinduism’ but the Church’s dialogue with people who say that they are adherents of ‘Hinduism’. Although the Catholic Church has pointed out repeatedly the wisdom of the Indian traditions, the question of the truth of the ‘Hindu’ teachings is not considered as particularly relevant for the practise of dialogue. Most of the official communication of the Vatican directed at Hindus is kept general or focuses on issues of social or environmental concern. Jenn Lindsay, a doctoral candidate at Boston University, observed during her grassroots research in Rome that initiatives that describe themselves as ‘religious’ often do not differ radically in methodology or objective from, say, intercultural dialogue, and there are some dialogue events where there is no talk about ‘religion’ at all beyond the tacit assumption of ‘religious’ belonging. Much of the Church’s dialogue is of a rather diplomatic nature, which may not be surprising considering that the Church is not only a group of Catholic individuals but one of the world’s biggest organizations whose officials have to find strategies for positioning the Church on various issues and in relation to other actors.

I found that within the PCID there was a clear awareness of the plurality within ‘Hinduism’. There was no assumption that they could meet the Hindu tradition in a single person. When I asked an official how he selected potential Hindu partners for dialogue, he replied that he did not because that would amount to deciding which of the thousands of groups would be the proper representative of ‘Hinduism’. Instead, he pointed out, the Vatican relies on its cooperation with the Church structures in India who recommend participants for meetings, for example on social issues, or Indian persons of authority who would like to meet with the Pope. Personal contacts are thus channelled and filtered through the church structures. One of the central aspects of the council’s work is to advise the local churches on the framework within which dialogue is considered possible and fruitful for Catholics and what would run contrary to Church guidelines. But why should Hindus be interested in ‘interreligious dialogue’? ‘Hinduism’ as a very diverse tradition (the criticism of speaking of ‘Hinduism’ a single tradition is well known), has no strict institutional selection criteria but depends on student-teacher lineage an intersubjective practice of reputation. Besides theological and social reasons, ‘interreligious dialogue’ with the institution Catholic Church as represented by individuals like the Pope or the members of the Curia can seem attractive for Hindu leaders as his or her approach is thereby externally acknowledged if not ‘officialized’ as an authoritative voice of ‘Hinduism’.

One of the reactions I received when talking about the work of the PCID was that this was not ‘interreligious dialogue’ but rather church politics. Yet in my view this distinction would itself be problematic because it reinforces the dichotomy between the religious and the political that has been criticized by Timothy Fitzgerald and others, and which appears as particularly artificial when the focus is not on individuals but on a giant global institution. While the general approach of the PCID may for some be neither ‘interreligious’ nor ‘dialogical’ enough, it has the conceptual advantage that it does not essentialize ‘Hinduism’ but is prepared to engage also with a tradition in which few people may hold exactly identical beliefs. The Vatican communication does, on the other hand, often essentialize Catholicism by presenting a unified ‘Catholic’ perspective. This is however not because the Vatican officials are under the illusion that all Catholics believe the same but because they hold that all Catholics under the guidance of the Church should do so. The Catholic Church also speaks of a dialogue of life to which every member is called, but on the organizational level interreligious dialogue signifies the benevolent and constructive interaction between the institution Catholic Church as the bearer of truth and the individuals and organizations of the wider world.

The Vatican’s take on ‘interreligious dialogue’ may be closer to diplomacy or even the public relations of a big organization than to either the ideal of ‘interhuman dialogue’ or the sentiments behind the harmony beads referred to in Marten’s post. Yet even within the Vatican the case is not clear-cut. Looking through Church documents that contain words like ‘Hindu’ one finds two very different approaches: while one is rooted in seeking to understand the mission field or a diplomatic partner, the other takes non-Catholics as fellow pilgrims who can engage in mutual support and cooperation and even a joint search for the truth. The recent video on ‘interreligious dialogue’ by Pope Francis is particularly interesting in this respect as the dramaturgy of the video implies no hierarchy among those addressed by the Pope but places the individual’s belief in ‘love’ into the centre of the dialogue. These approaches ranging between mission, diplomacy, public relations and ‘interhuman dialogue’, all with their own conceptual challenges, co-exist side by side. For understanding what people do when they speak of doing ‘interreligious dialogue’ one therefore has to look at concrete and limited cases and take plurality of actors, aims and motivations into account that seek to shape the concept and practise of ‘interreligious dialogue’ even within a single organisation, a single edited book or at a specific dialogue event. One of the reasons why the term ‘interreligious dialogue’ is still around is that in an increasingly plural and interdependent world it sets a stage that very different organizations use for negotiations of institutional and individual interests.

The Impossibility of Religious Freedom by Winnifred Fallers Sullivan: A Review


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Winnifred Sullivan’s The Impossibility of Religious Freedom addresses her involvement in and observations of the legal case study of Warner v. Boca Raton concerning the decoration of gravesites in a Boca Raton cemetery. The author is both an academic and a lawyer, and she probes the case from a predominantly sociological viewpoint rather than by articulating a legal argument.

The highlight of this book, in my opinion, is that it is so rich with detail. The photos, the uncomplicated narrative and the comprehensiveness of information tell a complete story well-presented. Sullivan makes the characters come to life; I was moved by the grief of her diverse interviewees who were being treated so pitilessly by the cemetery authorities. It is a very interesting and important book. The Impossibility of Religious Freedom is an account that was well worth putting together.

That said, the author could have developed the theoretical analysis further for a more instructive conclusion. She is saying that “Freedom of Religion” is impossible, but, problematically, never clarifies what exactly “Freedom of Religion” is. In the case of Jacobellis v. Ohio (1964), Justice Potter Stewart writes “that “hard-core pornography” is hard to define, but that “I know it when I see it”. Similar approaches have been made in defining the Freedom of Religion in law. Phillip Griego notes that the Sun-Worshipping Atheism case before the Fair Employment and Housing Act was dismissed for similar reasons. Without giving any clear explanations, Sullivan seems to be relying on the ‘I’ll know it when I see it’ approach, which is the cause of the ‘impossibility’ she critiques in the book. Applying a critical theory approach would yield a conclusion other than “this is impossible”.

‘Freedom of religion’ is protected by law; it stands trial on a regular basis, proving it not to be “impossible”. Every day in America, the country featured in The Impossibility of Religious Freedom, citizens (and corporations like Hobby Lobby) are operationalizing laws concerning Freedom of Religion to their benefit. In March 2016, North Carolina passed a bill that requires gender-segregated washrooms and seven other states are discussing following suit, in April 2016, Tennessee legislators passed a bill to allow therapists and counselors to abstain from treating people they think are gay, and in April 2016 Mississippi signed a Religious Freedom bill into law that allows businesses to discriminate against LGBT people. Religious Freedom works. What Sullivan has not distinctly explained in her book is who is producing the discursive norms of ‘religion’ protected by Religious Freedom, who is excluded or marginalized by this ‘domination of knowledge production’, and how the totalizing category of ‘religion’ is produced to protect particular interests—in short, she has not pointed to who is benefitting from this arrangement. The author sees that unclear definitions of religion lead to discrepancies between sociologists and lawyers, but where does that take us in terms of theoretical understanding or social justice? The Warner v. Boca Raton case study provides the opportunity to deconstruct the colonial, sexist, homophobic and coercive aspects of Freedom of Religion legislation, but Sullivan stops at “impossible”. (This is not to devalue her overall critique of ‘religion’ as a legal category. Such critiques are incredibly valuable).

Throughout the book, Sullivan notes that judges, lawyers and legal professionals of various kinds are puzzled and annoyed by her need to explain that there are innumerable definitions of religion, and these are all highly contested. They are confused that she can’t describe what she is an expert of, or what she studies. The effect is that her position as an expert witness is undermined, and she is unable to use her knowledge and position to bring justice to people in need. This is not her fault, but it points to a serious problem which Religious Studies scholars hoping to be public intellectuals need to address. The Religious Studies scholars in the book may be a confused bunch, but the theologians know exactly who they are. A rabbi and a priest are also called to be expert witnesses in Warner v. Boca Raton, and they had great confidence in their abilities as authorities.

In Boca Raton, Sullivan could have stood up for the rights of individuals in the face of corporate interest, she could have sparked a debate about private expression and public sterility, or she could have embarked on a fascinating contemporary analysis of burial culture and the legal context. In the book, Sullivan places great emphasis on her background in law, and so she could have used this case as the foundation of a rectification of the legal system to respond to the “impossibilities” which she is identifying. In the end, after the discussion about the indefinability of religion, Sullivan concludes that if people say that what they are doing is religion, they should be allowed to do it as long as it ‘looks like’ religion. There is nothing particularly harmful in this conclusion in this case, but as a qualified specialist the potential to do more was there. For example, Sullivan asks “[c]an “lived religion” ever be protected by laws guaranteeing religious freedom?”. If she is engaged in challenging the construction of religion in freedom of religion laws, perhaps a better question would be “can the freedom of expression protect the rights of these people to decorate graves?” That might be a more productive line of questioning.

Another important legal take on ‘religion clauses’ is Micah Schwartzman’s thorough article “What If Religion Isn’t Special?”, referring to ‘religion’ as a special entity within law. The implications of Schwartzman’s work are that ‘religion clauses’ foster divisions rather that solidarity, encouraging people to fight for small “accommodations” for their in-group instead of guaranteeing rights for society at large through freedom of assembly and freedom of speech legislation.

A fear that is sometimes voiced by my colleagues in Freedom of Religion discussions is that while the construction is problematic, something will be lost, or something important and indescribable will be left vulnerable if the problematic Freedom of Religion were not there. As expert witnesses, scholars need not convince lawmakers that religion is some enigmatic confusing thing they’ll just never quite understand; they need to lend their knowledge to constructive ways of ensuring that the behaviours classified as ‘religious’ that are worth protecting (or at the very least worth studying) are protected by other means.

The Impossibility of Religious Freedom is an interesting and insightful book which stimulates great thought and debate. It has potential, perhaps in a supplementary chapter with reference to Schwartzman’s suggestions, to push the theory further, but it provides a great introduction to the difficulties and challenges associated with Freedom of Religion in law.

The Harris Treaty (1858) and the Japanese Encounter to ‘Religion’


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Following on from my last blog entry, this short piece briefly describes the second Japanese encounter with the English language term ‘religion’, which occurred, this time, via the Dutch language. It took place in the treaty negotiations between the Japanese officials and Townsend Harris (1804-1878), the first US Consulate to Japan. In this process, Japanese translators had to be engaged with the idea of religion more intensely than on the previous occasion. Harris’ painstaking effort resulted in the Treaty of Amity and Commerce (‘Harris Treaty’) which was signed on July 29, 1858. Article Eight of Harris Treaty contains the clause on ‘religion’. When the Japan’s translation bureau chose four different Japanese words for the five instances of ‘religion’ or ‘religious’ in the original English text, the Chinese ideograph shū 宗 was employed as the central concept. In the Japanese language, the character of shū, with its Buddhist origin, generalizes the sectarian confines of Buddhist tradition itself.

The treaty negotiations between Harris and Japanese officials were conducted bilaterally via Dutch. The original English text of Harris Treaty was translated into Japanese from its Dutch version. In order to understand how the Japanese negotiators interpreted ‘religion’ in Harris’ discourse, it is important to examine the ways in which the Japanese translated the equivalent term in their negotiations with the Dutch. Almost parallel to Harris’ negotiations with the Japanese, the Dutch commissioner Jan Hendrik Donker Curtius (1817-1879) was also negotiating a Dutch treaty with the Japanese. Importantly, the Dutch treaty contains the term ‘godsdienst’, which was utilized by Harris Treaty as the Dutch translation of the English term ‘religion’. The interpretation of this Dutch terminology by the Japanese is likely to have impacted upon their understanding of the English term ‘religion’ in Harris Treaty.

The Dutch word ‘godsdienst’ was the dominant Dutch term for the English concept ‘religion’ in the nineteenth century, and it literally meant ‘service to God’. Having maintained contact with the Dutch, while the country had been closed off to other foreigners for more than two centuries, the so-called ‘Dutch learning’ (or Rangaku) intellectuals in the Tokugawa era were familiar with the Dutch language, to the extent that Japanese Dutch dictionaries had been available for Japanese intellectuals. By the early nineteenth century, the Dutch term ‘godsdienst’ had been defined in a Japanese Dutch dictionary as kami ni tsukauru hito, which means ‘those who serve kami’. The implicit notion of god in godsdienst had been translated as kami. This point is worth paying special attention to.

The Japanese concept of kami is not the same as the Western concept of God. It is in fact ‘radically different from the concept of God in Judeo-Christian tradition’. Kitagawa explains:

The term kami means (etymologically) “high,” “superior,” or “sacred.” It is usually accepted as an appellation for all beings which possess extraordinary quality, and which are awesome and worthy of reverence, including good as well as evil beings.

It is also important to highlight that since the sixteenth century, the Catholic notion of God had been translated into Japanese as tenshu天主. This was a concept clearly demarcated from kami. The appropriation of the term kami to denote the Dutch notion of God, therefore, indicates a tacit distinction of the Dutch godsdienst from Roman Catholicism, which had been feared by the Japanese authorities for more than two centuries as jakyō邪教 (‘heretics’ or ‘evil teaching’). In contrast to the Catholic notion of God, having been appropriated by the Japanese notion of kami, the Dutch (Protestant) idea of god had been positively accommodated in the existing Japanese cultural framework.

The demarcation between the Dutch godsdienst and Roman Catholicism is apparent in the Japanese translation of its Article 33. This clause can be translated into English as follows: ‘The Dutch have freedom to practice their own or the Christian religion, within their buildings and at the gravesites appointed for them’.[1] It contains the rather confusing phrase, ‘their own or the Christian religion’. This may be read in two different ways: ‘they have the freedom to practice their own religion or some other religion, which is called Christianity’; or ‘they have the freedom to practice their own religion, which is to say, Christianity’.

Japanese translators read this clause in the latter sense. Japan’s translation bureau originally translated it simply as ‘Protestantism’ by the Japanese term yasoshū耶蘇宗. This word was clearly distinguished from Catholicism, which was at that time called tenshukyō天主教. In addition, it is important to highlight that the Japanese interpreters chose the term yasoshū, rather than yasokyō耶蘇教, which was also a common designation of Protestantism in Japan. This indicates the interpreters’ preference of shū over the concept of kyō. While kyō is a generic notion of teaching, shū means a class of sectarian tradition. This is related to the Japanese policy strategy, which discouraged doctrinal debates, whereas it tolerated ritual practices. This conceptual preference continued into the negotiations for Harris Treaty.

This specific way of translating godsdienst, however, was slightly altered in later years. It should be noted that all the Japanese international treaties, including this Dutch treaty, were retranslated after 1884. When the retranslation of the Japanese-Dutch Supplementary Treaty was published in 1889, the term yasoshū in the earlier translation, was replaced with the broader term of shūhō which literally means ‘sect law’[2]. Nevertheless, both terms in the earlier and the later translations still share the concept of shū, which played a key role in translating the term ‘religion’ employed in Harris Treaty.

[1] The new Japanese translation of the Article 33 published in 1889 goes: ‘阿蘭人其館内并定りたる埋葬所に於て其國の宗法を修するには障なき事’.

[2] The Dutch original version of the Article 33 is: ‘De Nederlanders hebben vrijheid tot uitoefening van hunne eigene of de Christelijke godsdienst, binnen hunne gebouwen en binnen de voor hen bestemde begraafplaatsen’ (Gaimushō Kirokukyoku 1889: 525).

The Perry Expedition (1853-1854) and the Japanese Encounter with “Religion”


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Under orders from American President Millard Fillmore (1800-1874), Commodore Matthew Calbraith Perry (1794-1858) commanded an expedition to Japan in the 1850s. After more than 7 months at sea, Perry and his squadron finally reached Uraga, at the entrance to Edo (Tokyo) Bay in Japan, on 8th July 1853.

The Perry Expedition carried a letter from the President of the United Sates to “the Emperor of Japan” (in fact, meaning the Shogun)[1]. This letter was drafted in 1851 by Daniel Webster (1782-1852), and was signed by President Fillmore. This was accompanied by another letter written by Perry himself. These letters contained the English words ‘religious’ and ‘religion’, though there were no equivalent concepts in Japanese at that time.

The letters were presented by Perry to the Japanese officials on 14th July 1853, at Kurihama (present-day Yokosuka). Chinese and Dutch translations were provided together with the English originals. However, it was the Chinese translation from which the widely-circulated Japanese translation was produced. This was the first time the Japanese had encountered the English language concept of religion.

The original English letters were translated into Chinese by the expedition’s chief translator, Samuel Wells Williams (1812-1884), and his Chinese assistant. The process of translation was not an easy one. William’s Chinese assistant spoke Shanghainese, while Williams could only speak Cantonese at that time. Speaking different dialects, they had trouble understanding each other. In addition, with regard to the generic notion of religion in the letters, the Chinese language had no equivalent either.

Whilst translating President Fillmore’s letter into Chinese, the phrase “religious or political” was interpreted as 政礼, meaning ‘governance and rites’. By the mid-nineteenth century, the English language had already established the notion of ‘religion’ as distinct from ‘politics’. In contrast, the Chinese terms of ‘governance’ (ching) and ‘rites’ (li) did not have the same binary relation as ‘politics’ and ‘religion’, and carry very different nuances. Whilst ching implies the ruling of a territorial country by the imperial authority, li denotes the code of human conduct encompassing both the private and the public realms. Li renders the general sense of propriety and etiquette, which cannot be confined in the modern western notion of ‘religious’.

The Japanese version of the letter inherited the Chinese phrase 政礼 (governance and rites) in place of the English phrase “religion and politics”. When it came to be bilaterally translated into Japanese, however, the meaning was once again transformed. In the mid-nineteenth century, the Chinese ideograph, ching政, was read in Japan as matsurigoto, which is derived from the word matsuri, meaning ‘to worship’. The concept of matsurigoto indicates that the purpose of human governance was “to celebrate the deities who created the realm and the people” (165). It contained an element which can be regarded as ‘religious’ in the modern sense.

As for the Chinese concept of li (rites), it was read as rei in Japan. While the Chinese concept of li represents the Confucian concept of propriety, in mid-nineteenth century Japan, the notion of rei was understood as norms of respecting existing social hierarchy. In this conceptualization, it is very hard to regard rei as the equivalent to the western notion of ‘religious’ as distinct from ‘political’. The Protestant notion of private faith, as articulated by the term ‘religious’, was bilaterally translated into the Japanese concept of rei, as a set of cultural codes which encompassed the entire social practices, including governance.

A similar transformation of meaning can be found in the process of the bilateral translation of Perry’s letter which accompanied President Fillmore’s letter. Whereas Williams used the term li to translate the adjective ‘religious’ in Fillmore’s letter, he chose the Chinese word kiáu教, for the noun ‘religion’ in Perry’s letter.

As Williams’ own publications in Sinology indicate, the mid-nineteen century Chinese notion of kiáu was much broader than the Western concept of religion as private faith. For example, the definition of kiáu in Williams’s 1856 dictionary is: “To instruct, to teach, to show how; to command, to order; precept, principle, rule; doctrines, tenets; a religious sect, a school, or those who hold to the same opinions” (144). In addition, kiáu indicates a kind of hierarchical harmony between the old and the young, and between ruler and subjects (372). It is also a kind of teaching to be transmitted from the old to the young, and from ruler to subject (372). The notion of kiáu was much broader than the Western category of religion, with a strong sense of ancestral traditions, which included families and the state.

The Chinese character for kiáu was employed in the Japanese translation of Perry’s letter. In the Japanese language, the same ideograph is read kyō. It is also pronounced oshie. As kiáu does in Chinese, the Japanese notion of kyō or oshie refers to the generalized idea of teaching or teachings. However, the Japanese concept of kyō or oshie seems to have moved away from the strong hierarchical connotation which is apparent in its Chinese meaning. For the Japanese, it meant a kind of systematic knowledge constituting the basis for public morality and the outward form of state ritual (161). In this sense, it was likely that such things as the constitutional systems and state ceremonies in Europe and America, would have been categorized as kyō by the Japanese (162). In this light, the tacit distinction between religion and the magistrate, which Perry made in his letter, almost completely disappeared in the Japanese version.

Following on from the Perry Expedition, President Franklin Pierce (1804-1869) appointed Townsend Harris (1804-1878) in 1855, to be America’s first consul to Japan. Harris opened the first US Consulate in Japan in 1856. He successfully negotiated the Treaty of Amity and Commerce (also known as ‘Harris Treaty’) of 1858, in which he inserted a clause on ‘religion’.

The American projection of ‘religion’ onto Japan in the mid-nineteenth century was an integral part of America’s Christian imperialism, powered by its self-belief in its divine mission in the world. The generic idea of ‘religion’ was brought to Japan by the Perry expedition, and subsequently by Harris, in this cultural context. These issues are fully examined in my forthcoming article, ‘American Imperialism and the Japanese Encounter with “Religion”: 1853-1858’, which will be published this year in the special issue of the Sapienza University of Rome’s Studi e Materiali di Storia delle Religioni.

[1] Perry mistakenly thought the Shogun was an emperor, while the Japanese historically conceptualized the Shogun as the Emperor’s military commander.

Comment on the high court challenge to the new Religious Studies GCSE curriculum in England


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The Education Acts in England and Scotland (1945 & 1946) established that all children and young people at school should take ‘religious education’ and begin each day with some kind of act of ‘religious observance’.  Although the Acts are now sometimes observed ‘more in the breach’ – anecdotal evidence suggests –   this is still the case officially across the UK today.

There has always been a minority view since 1945 that ‘religion’ is not an appropriate subject to study at school in a ‘secular’ age. More recently however the content of RE curricula has changed in response to concerns about its ‘confessional’ character and people are accustomed to the idea that the content of RE now relates to a neutral treatment of ‘world religions’ rather than to the inculcation of a particular set of teachings, beliefs or practices.  Now another point of contention seems to have emerged. A group composed of parents and young people supported by the British Humanist Association (BHA) is going to court to challenge the government’s most recent revised curriculum for Religious Studies in England and Wales at GCSE level.

One argument appears to be that such a limited description of ‘world religions’  (typically in recent years only six recognized ‘major world religions’ are studied in the UK context) gives the impression that within the school curriculum, issues of truth and morality are predominantly if not exclusively addressed here and that ‘non-religious world views’ are somehow discriminated against as inferior. This view is understandable given the ways in which we use the terms ‘religion’, ‘non-religious’ and ‘the secular’ and this is something that a group of scholars associated with the term ‘critical religion’ have been working on in recent years. They have come up with the idea that this language does not simply describe several equitable positions or entities existing in the world that – as seems to be the demand in this case – should all have their place in terms of educational policy making and the curriculum. Tim Fitzgerald of Stirling University has argued for example that

‘…religion is a power category that, in dialectical interplay with other power categories such as ‘politics’, ‘science’ or ‘nature’, constructs a world and our own apprehensions according to the interests of private property, and the various beliefs, institutions and practices that have come into the world to protect private property.’

The BHA and the parents and young people they are supporting in this case may thus  be justified in their concern about the associations of ‘religion’ with notions of truth, conscience and morality that are arguably still significantly informed in policy contexts  by a privileged view of its meaning as explored by Fitzgerald for example.  By excluding humanism from the context of ‘religion’ in the curriculum, the BHA might quite reasonably argue they are thus  being excluded from a point of privileged moral and ethical reference in British society. At the same time, we could  say that the terms ‘religion’ and ‘the religious’ continue to act in British society to describe a sphere of influence that is subordinate.  Its proper concerns are determined by their distinction from ‘the secular’ within an essentially hierarchical binary. The sphere of ‘religion’ is viewed as contributing to a legitimate if subsidiary and largely privatized social and cultural richness or diversity, but there is little doubt in the present ideological context within British society that power in the public realm lies with values and institutions that are generally identified as ‘secular.’

In consequence the appellants seem at once justified and unjustified in their case.  Humanism does seem as worthy of study as, for example, Christianity or any other of the ‘six major religions’.  On the other hand, it is difficult to know what is to be achieved by trying to establish humanism as an equivalent to the other ‘world religions’ or even in terms of the synonymous  ‘world view’ whilst the RE curriculum continues systematically to exclude any discussion of the fascinating and not very neutral, normative concerns of contemporary society currently elevated in contrast as ‘secular’.

In other words whilst there seems to be an issue here about discrimination and the equitable recognition of diversity, there is perhaps an even more profound issue about the entire discursive language of religion/non-religion/secularity that in policy terms has already powerfully limited the possible differences of truth, conscience and morality with which young people can be encouraged to engage in school RE curricula, revised or otherwise.