Religion and Revolution
Real money & hierarchic religion appear to have arisen in the same mysterious moment sometime between the early Neolithic and the third millennium BC in Sumer or Egypt; which came first, the chicken or the egg? Was one a response to the other or is one an aspect of the other?
No doubt that money possesses a deeply religious implication since from the very moment of its appearance it begins to strive for the condition of the spirit — to remove itself from the world of bodies, to transcend materiality, to become the one true efficacious symbol. With the invention of writing around 3100 BC money as we know it emerges from a complicated system of clay tokens or counters representing material goods & takes the form of written bills of credit impressed on clay tablets; almost without exception these “cheques” seem to concern debts owed to the State Temple, & in theory could have been used in an extended system of exchange as credit-notes “minted” by the theocracy. Coins did not appear until around 700 BC in Greek Asia Minor; they were made of electrum (gold and silver) not because these metals had commodity value but because they were sacred — Sun & Moon; the ratio of value between them has always hovered around 14:1 not because the earth contains 14 times as much silver as gold but because the Moon takes 14 “suns” to grow from dark to full. Coins may have originated as temple tokens symbolizing a worshipper’s due share of the sacrifice — holy souvenirs, which could later be traded for goods because they had “mana”, not use-value. (This function may have originated in the Stone Age trade in “ceremonial” stone axe-heads used in potlach-like distribution rites.) Unlike Mesopotamian credit-notes, coins were inscribed with sacred images & were seen as liminal objects, nodal points between quotidian reality & the world of the spirits (this accounts for the custom of bending coins to “spiritualize” them and throwing them into wells, which are the “eyes” of the otherworld.) Debt itself — the true content of all money — is a highly “spiritual” concept. As tribute (primitive debt) it exemplifies capitulation to a “legitimate power” of expropriation masked in religious ideology — but as “real debt” it attains the uniquely spiritual ability to reproduce itself as if it were an organic being. Even now it remains the only “dead” substance in all the world to possess this power — “money begets money”. At this point money begins to take on a parodic aspect vis-à-vis religion — it seems that money wants to rival god, to become immanent spirit in the form of pure metaphysicality which nevertheless “rules the world”. Religion must take note of this blasphemous nature in money and condemn it as contra naturam. Money & religion enter opposition — one cannot serve God & Mammon simultaneously. But so long as religion continues to perform as the ideology of separation (the hierarchic State, expropriation, etc.) it can never really come to grips with the money-problem. Over & over again reformers arise within religion to chase the moneylenders from the temple, & always they return — in fact often enough the moneylenders become the Temple. (It’s certainly no accident that banks for along time aped the forms of religious architecture.) According to Weber it was Calvin who finally resolved the issue with his theological justification for “usury” — but this scarcely does credit to the real Protestants, like the Ranters & Diggers, who proposed that religion should once & for all enter into total opposition to money — thereby launching the Millennium. It seems more likely that the Enlightenment should take credit for resolving the problem — by jettisoning religion as the ideology of the ruling class & replacing it with rationalism (& “Classical Economics”). This formula however would fail to do justice to those real illuminati who proposed the dismantling of all ideologies of power & authority — nor would it help to explain why “official” religion failed to realize its potential as opposition at this point, & instead went on providing moral support for both State & Capital.
Under the influence of Romanticism however there arose — both inside & outside of “official” religion — a growing sense of spirituality as an alternative to the oppressive aspects of Liberalism & its intellectual/artistic allies. On the one hand this sense led to a conservative-revolutionary form of romantic reaction (e.g. Novalis) — but on the other hand it also fed into the old heretical tradition (which also began with the “rise of Civilization” as a movement of resistance to the theocracy of expropriation) — and found itself in a strange new alliance with rationalist radicalism (the nascent “left”); William Blake, for example, or the “Blaspheming Chapels” of Spence & his followers, represent this trend. The meeting of spirituality & resistance is not some surrealist event or anomaly to be smoothed out or rationalized by “History” — it occupies a position at the very root of radicalism; — and despite the militant atheism of Marx or Bakunin (itself a kind of mutated mysticism or “heresy”), the spiritual still remains inextricably involved with the “Good Old Cause” it helped create.
Some years ago Regis Debray wrote an article pointing out that despite the confidant predictions of 19th century materialism, religion had still perversely failed to go away — and that perhaps it was time for the Revolution to come to terms with this mysterious persistence. Coming from a Catholic culture Debray was interested in “Liberation Theology”, itself a projection of the old quasi-heresy of the “Poor” Franciscans & the recurrent rediscovery of “Bible communism”. Had he considered Protestant culture he might have remembered the 17th century, & looked for its true inheritance; if Moslem he could have evoked the radicalism of the Shiites or Ismailis, or the anti-colonialism of the 19th century “neo-Sufis”. Every religion has called forth its own inner antithesis over & over again; every religion has considered the implications of moral opposition to power; every tradition contains a vocabulary of resistance as well as capitulation to oppression. Speaking broadly one might say that up until now this “counter-tradition” — which is both inside & outside religion — has comprised a “suppressed content”. Debray’s question concerned its potential for realization. Liberation Theology lost most of its support within the church when it could no longer serve its function as rival (or accomplice) of Soviet Communism; & it could no longer serve this function because Communism collapsed. But some Liberation theologians proved to be sincere — and still they persist (as in Mexico); moreover, an entire submerged & related tendency within Catholicism, exemplified in the almost Scholastic anarchism of an Ivan Illich, lingers in the background. Similar tendencies could be identified within Orthodoxy (e.g. Bakunin), Protestantism, Judaism, Islam, and (in a somewhat different sense) Buddhism; moreover, most “surviving” indigenous forms of spirituality (e.g. Shamanism) or the Afro-american syncretisms can find common cause with various radical trends in the “major” religions on such issues as the environment, & the morality of anti-Capitalism. Despite elements of romantic reaction, various New Age & post-New-Age movements can also be associated with this rough category.
In a previous essay we have outlined reasons for believing that the collapse of Communism implies the triumph of its single opponent, Capitalism; that according to neo-liberal global propaganda only one world now exists; & that this political situation has grave implications for a theory of money as the virtual deity (autonomous, spiritualized, & all-powerful) of the single universe of meaning. Under these conditions everything that was once a third possibility (neutrality, withdrawal, counter-culture, the “Third World”, etc.) now must find itself in a new situation. There is no longer any “second” — how can there be a “third”? The “alternatives” have narrowed catastrophically. The One World is now in a position to crush everything which once escaped its ecstatic embrace — thanks to the unfortunate distraction of waging an essentially economic war against the Evil Empire. There is no more third way, no more neither/nor. Everything that is different will now be subsumed into the sameness of the One World — or else will discover itself in opposition to that world. Taking this thesis as given, we must now ask where religion will locate itself on this new map of “zones” of capitulation & resistance. If “revolution” has been freed of the incubus of Soviet oppression and is now once again a valid concept, are we finally in a position to offer a tentative answer to Debray’s question?
Taking “religion” as a whole, including even those forms such as shamanism that belong to Society rather than the State (in terms of Clastres’s anthropology); including polytheisms, monotheisms, & non-theisms; including mysticisms & heresies as well as orthodoxies, “reformed” churches, & “new religions” — obviously the subject under consideration lacks definition, borders, coherence; & it cannot be questioned because it would only generate a babel of responses rather than an answer. But “religion” does refer to something — call it a certain range of colors in the spectrum of human becoming — & as such it might be considered (at least pro tem) as a valid dialogic entity & as a theorizable subject. In the triumphant movement of Capital — in its processual moment so to speak — all religion can only be viewed as nullity, i.e. as a commodity to be packaged & sold, an asset to be stripped, or an opposition to be eliminated. Any idea (or ideology) that cannot be subsumed into capital’s “End of History” must be doomed. This includes both reaction & resistance — & it most certainly includes the non-separative “re-linking” (religio) of consciousness with “spirit” as unmediated imaginal self-determination & value-creation — the original goal of all ritual & worship. Religion in other words has lost all connection with worldly power because that power has migrated off-world — it has abandoned even the State & achieved the purity of apotheosis, like the God that “abandoned Anthony” in Cavafy’s poem. The few States (mostly Islamic) wherein religion holds power are located precisely within the ever-shrinking region of national opposition to Capital — (thus providing them with such potential strange bedfellows as Cuba!). Like all other “third possibilities” religion is faced with a new dichotomy: total capitulation, or else revolt. Thus the “revolutionary potential” of religion clearly appears — although it remains unclear whether resistance might take the form of reaction or radicalism — or indeed whether religion is not already defeated — whether its refusal to go away is that of an enemy, or a ghost.
In Russia & Serbia the Orthodox Church appears to have thrown in its lot with reaction against the New World Order & thus found new fellowship with its old Bolshevik oppressors, In Chechnya the Naqshbandi Sufi Order continues its centuries-old struggle against Russian imperialism. In Chiapas there’s a strange alliance of Mayan “pagans” & radical Catholics. Certain factions of American Protestantism have been driven to the point of paranoia & armed resistance (but even paranoids have some real enemies); while Native-american spirituality undergoes a small but miraculous revival — not a Ghost Shirt uprising this time, but a reasoned & profound stand against the hegemony of Capital’s monoculture. The Dalai Lama sometimes appears as the one “world leader” capable of speaking truth both to the remnants of the Communist oppression & the forces of Capitalist inhumanity; a “Free Tibet” might provide some kind of focus for an “interfaith” bloc of small nations & religious groups allied against the transcendental social darwinism of the consensus. Arctic shamanism may re-emerge as an “ideology” for the self-determination of certain new Siberian republics — and some New Religions (such as Western neo-paganism or the psychedelic cults) also belong by definition or default to the pole of opposition.
Islam has seen itself as the enemy of imperial Christianity & European imperialism almost from the moment of its inception. During the 20th century it functioned as a “third way” against both Communism & Capitalism, & in the context of the new One World it now constitutes by definition one of the very few existing mass movements which cannot be englobed into the unity of any would-be Consensus. Unfortunately the spearhead of resistance — “fundamentalism” — tends to reduce the complexity of Islam into an artificially coherent ideology — “Islamism” — which clearly fails to speak to the normal human desire for difference & complexity. Fundamentalism has already failed to concern itself with “empirical freedoms” which must constitute the minimal demands of the new resistance; for example, its critique of “usury” is obviously an inadequate response to the machinations of the IMF & World Bank. The “gates of Interpretation” of the Shariah must be re-opened — not slammed shut forever — and a fully-realized alternative to Capitalism must emerge from within the tradition. Whatever one may think of the Libyan Revolution of 1969 it has at least the virtue of an attempt to fuse the anarcho-syndicalism of ’68 with the neo-Sufi egalitarianism of the North African Orders, & to create a revolutionary Islam — something similar could be said of Ali Shariati’s “Shiite socialism” in Iran, which was crushed by the ulemocracy before it could crystallize into a coherent movement. The point is that Islam cannot be dismissed as the puritan monolith portrayed in the Capitalist media. If a genuine anti-Capitalist coalition is to appear in the world it cannot happen without Islam. The goal of all theory capable of any sympathy with Islam, I believe, is now to encourage its radical & egalitarian traditions & to substruct its reactionary & authoritarian modes of discourse. Within Islam there persist such mythic figures as the “Green Prophet” and hidden guide of the mystics, al-Khezr, who could easily become a kind of patron saint of Islamic environmentalism; while history offers such models as the great Algerian Sufi freedom-fighter Emir Abdul Qadir, whose last act (in exile in Damascus) was to protect Syrian Christians against the bigotry of the ulema. From outside Islam there exists the potential for “interfaith” movements concerned with ideals of peace, toleration, & resistance to the violence of post-secular post-rationalist “neo-liberalism” & its allies. In effect, then, the “revolutionary potential” of Islam is not yet realized — but it is real.
Since Christianity is the religion that “gave birth” (in Weberian terms) to Capitalism, its position in relation to the present apotheosis of Capitalism is necessarily more problematic than Islam’s. For centuries Christianity has been drawing in on itself & constructing a kind of make-believe world of its own, wherein some semblance of the social might persist (if only on Sundays) — even while it maintained the cozy illusion of some relation to power. As an ally of Capital (with its seeming benign indifference to the hypothesis of faith) against “Godless Communism”, Christianity could preserve the illusion of power — at least until five years ago. Now Capitalism no longer needs Christianity & the social support it enjoyed will soon evaporate. Already the Queen of England has had to consider stepping down as the head of the Anglican Church — & she is unlikely to be replaced by the CEO of some vast international zaibatsu! Money is god — God is really dead at last; Capitalism has realized a hideous parody of the Enlightenment ideal. But Jesus is a dying-&-resurrecting god — one might say he’s been through all this before. Even Nietzsche signed his last “insane” letter as “Dionysus & the Crucified One”; in the end it is perhaps only religion that can “overcome” religion. Within Christianity a myriad tendencies appear (or have persisted since the 17th century, like the Quakers) seeking to revive that radical messiah who cleansed the Temple & promised the Kingdom to the poor. In America for instance it would seem impossible to imagine a really successful mass movement against Capitalism (some form of “progressive populism”) without the participation of the churches. Again the theoretical task begins to clarify itself; one need not propose some vulgar kind of “entryism” into organized Christianity to radicalize it by conspiracy from within. Rather the goal would be to encourage the sincere & widespread potential for Christian radicalism either from within as an honest believer (however “existentialist” the faith!) or as an honest sympathizer from the outside.
To test this theorizing take an example — say Ireland (where I happen to be writing this). Given that Ireland’s “Problems” arise largely from sectarianism, clearly one must take an anti-clerical stance; in fact atheism would be at least emotionally appropriate. But the inherent ambiguity of religion in Irish history should be remembered: — there were moments when Catholic priests & laity supported resistance or revolution, & there were moments when Protestant ministers & laity supported resistance or revolution. The hierarchies of the churches have generally proven themselves reactionary — but hierarchy is not the same thing as religion. On the Protestant side we have Wolfe Tone & the United Irishmen — a revolutionary “interfaith” movement. Even today in Northern Ireland such possibilities are not dead; anti-sectarianism is not just a socialist ideal but also a Christian ideal. On the Catholic side… a few years ago I met a radical priest at a pagan festival in the Aran Islands, a friend of Ivan Illich. When I asked him, “What exactly is your relation to Rome?” he answered, “Rome? Rome is the enemy.” Rome has lost its stranglehold on Ireland in the last few years, brought down by anti-puritan revolt & internal scandal. It would be incorrect to say that the Church’s power has shifted to the State, unless we also add that the government’s power has shifted to Europe, & Europe’s power has shifted to international capital. The meaning of Catholicism in Ireland is up for grabs. Over the next few years we might expect to see both inside & outside the Church a kind of revival of “Celtic Christianity” — devoted to resistance against pollution of the environment both physical & imaginal, & therefore committed to anti-Capitalist struggle. Whether this trend would lead to an open break with Rome and the formation of an independent church — who knows? Certainly the trend will include or at least influence Protestantism as well. Such a broad-based movement might easily find its natural political expression in socialism or even in anarcho-socialism, & would serve a particularly useful function as a force against sectarianism & the rule of the clerisy. Thus even in Ireland it would seem that religion may have a revolutionary future.
I expect these ideas will meet with very little acceptance within traditionally atheist anarchism or the remnants of “dialectical materialism”. Enlightenment radicalism has long refused to recognize any but remote historical roots within religious radicalism. As a result, the Revolution threw out the baby (“non-ordinary consciousness”) along with the bathwater of the Inquisition or of puritan repression. Despite Sorel’s insistence that the Revolution needed a “myth”, it preferred to bank everything on “pure reason” instead. But spiritual anarchism & communism (like religion itself) have failed to go away. Indeed, by becoming an anti-Religion, radicalism had recourse to a kind of mysticism of its own, complete with ritual, symbolism, & morality. Bakunin’s remark about God — that if he existed we would have to kill him — would after all pass for the purest orthodoxy within Zen Buddhism! The psychedelic movement, which offered a kind of “scientific” (or at least experiential ) verification of non-ordinary consciousness, led to a degree of rapprochement between spirituality & radical politics — & the trajectory of this movement may have only begun. If religion has “always” acted to enslave the mind or to reproduce the ideology of the ruling class, it has also “always” involved some form of entheogenesis (“birth of the god within”) or liberation of consciousness; some form of utopian proposal or promise of “heaven on earth”; and some form of militant & positive action for “social justice” as God’s plan for the creation. Shamanism is a form of “religion” that (as Clastres showed) actually institutionalizes spirituality against the emergence of hierarchy & separation — & all religions possess at least a shamanic trace.
Every religion can point to a radical tradition of some sort. Taoism once produced the Yellow Turbans — or for that matter the Tongs that collaborated with anarchism in the 1911 revolution. Judaism produced the “anarcho-zionism” of Martin Buber & Gersholm Scholem (deeply influenced by Gustav Landauer & other anarchists of 1919), which found its most eloquent & paradoxical voice in Walter Benjamin. Hinduism gave birth to the ultra-radical Bengali Terrorist Party — & also to M. Gandhi, the modern world’s only successful theorist of non-violent revolution. Obviously anarchism & communism will never come to terms with religion on questions of authority & property; & perhaps one might say that “after the Revolution” such questions will remain to be resolved. But it seems clear that without religion there will be no radical revolution; the Old Left & the (old) New Left can scarcely fight it alone. The alternative to an alliance now is to watch while Reaction co-opts the force of religion & launches a revolution without us. Like it or not, some sort of pre-emptive strategy is required. Resistance demands a vocabulary in which our common cause can be discussed; hence these sketchy proposals.
Even assuming we could classify all the above under the rubric of admirable sentiments, we would still find ourselves far from any obvious program of action. Religion is not going to “save” us in this sense (perhaps the reverse is true!) — in any case religion is faced with the same perplexity as any other former “third position”, including all forms of radical non-authoritarianism & anti-Capitalism. The new totality & its media appear so pervasive as to fore-doom all programs of revolutionary content, since every “message” is equally subject to subsumption in the “medium” that is Capital itself. Of course the situation is hopeless — but only stupidity would take this as reason for despair, or for the terminal boredom of defeat. Hope against hope — Bloch’s revolutionary hope — belongs to a “utopia” that is never wholly absent even when it is least present; & it belongs as well to a religious sphere in which hopelessness is the final sin against the holy spirit: — the betrayal of the divine within — the failure to become human. “Karmic duty” in the sense of the Bhagavad Gita — or in the sense of “revolutionary duty” — is not something imposed by Nature, like gravity, or death. It is a free gift of the spirit — one can accept or refuse it — & both positions are perilous. To refuse is to run the risk of dying without having lived. To accept is an even more dangerous but far more interesting possibility. A version of Pascal’s Wager — not on the immortality of the soul this time, but simply on its sheer existence.
To use religious metaphor (which we’ve tried so far to avoid) the millennium began five years before the end of the century, when One World came into being & banished all duality. From the Judao-Christiano-Islamic perspective however this is the false millennium of the “Anti-Christ”; which turns out not to be a “person” (except in the world of Archetypes perhaps) but an impersonal entity, a force contra naturam — entropy disguised as life. In this view the reign of iniquity must & will be challenged in the true millennium, the advent of the messiah. But the messiah is also not a single person in the world — rather, it is a collectivity in which each individuality is realized & thus (again metaphorically or imaginally) immortalized. The “people-as-messiah” do not enter into the homogenous sameness nor the infernal separation of entropic Capitalism, but into the difference & presence of revolution — the struggle, the “holy war”. On this basis alone can we begin to work on a theory of reconciliation between the positive forces of religion & the cause of resistance. What we are offered here is simply the beginning of the beginning.
Dublin, Sept. 1, 1996