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.