Monday, September 17, 2007

Ruthless Criticism of All That Exists

Marx wrote in a letter to Ruge (September 1843):
The internal difficulties seem to be almost greater than the external obstacles. For although no doubt exists on the question of "Whence," all the greater confusion prevails on the question of "Whither." Not only has a state of general anarchy set in among the reformers, but everyone will have to admit to himself that he has no exact idea what the future ought to be. On the other hand, it is precisely the advantage of the new trend that we do not dogmatically anticipate the world, but only want to find the new world through criticism of the old one. Hitherto philosophers have had the solution of all riddles lying in their writing-desks, and the stupid, exoteric world had only to open its mouth for the roast pigeons of absolute knowledge to fly into it. Now philosophy has become mundane, and the most striking proof of this is that philosophical consciousness itself has been drawn into the torment of the struggle, not only externally but also internally. But, if constructing the future and settling everything for all times are not our affair, it is all the more clear what we have to accomplish at present: I am referring to ruthless criticism of all that exists, ruthless both in the sense of not being afraid of the results it arrives at and in the sense of being just as little afraid of conflict with the powers that be.
Today, a similar confusion prevails on the question of "Whither." If anything, in this post-socialist and post-social democratic age, when old modes of resistance have disappeared, we are even in greater need of "ruthless criticism of all that exists, ruthless both in the sense of not being afraid of the results it arrives at and in the sense of being just as little afraid of conflict with the powers that be" than men and women of Marx's times.

But are leftists really in favor of "ruthless criticism of all that exists," if the criticism in question gets extended to liberalism, which most leftists have adopted, often without realizing that they have done so, especially through their uncritical adoption of secularism? That remains to be seen.

Political liberalism protects capitalism through its public-private distinction. As Stanley Fish sums it up in his New York Times blog ("Liberalism and Secularism: One and the Same," 2 September 2007), liberalism is an ideology that
insists . . . on a form of government that is, in legal philosopher Ronald Dworkin's words, "independent of any particular conception of the good life." Individual citizens are free to have their own conception of what the good life is, but the state, liberal orthodoxy insists, should neither endorse nor condemn any one of them (unless of course its adherents would seek to impose their vision on others).

It follows then that the liberal state can not espouse a particular religion or require its citizens to profess it. Instead, the liberal state is committed to tolerating all religions while allying itself with none. Indeed, Starr declares, "the logic of liberalism" is "exemplified" by religious toleration. For if the idea is to facilitate the flourishing of many points of view while forestalling "internecine… conflicts" between them, religion, the most volatile and divisive of issues, must be removed from the give and take of political debate and confined to the private realm of the spirit, where it can be tolerated because it has been quarantined.

Thus the toleration of religion goes hand in hand with -- is the same thing as -- the diminishing of its role in the society. It is a quid pro quo. What the state gets by "excluding religion from any binding social consensus" (Starr) is a religion made safe for democracy. What religion gets is the state's protection. The result, Starr concludes approvingly, is "a political order that does not threaten to extinguish any of the various theological doctrines" it contains.

That's right. The liberal order does not extinguish religions; it just eviscerates them, unless they are the religions that display the same respect for the public-private distinction that liberalism depends on and enforces. A religion that accepts the partitioning of the secular and the sacred and puts at its center the private transaction between the individual and his God fits the liberal bill perfectly. John Locke and his followers, of whom Starr is one, would bar civic authorities from imposing religious beliefs and would also bar religious establishments from meddling in the civic sphere. Everyone stays in place; no one gets out of line.

But what of religions that will not stay in place, but claim the right, and indeed the duty, to order and control the affairs of the world so that the tenets of the true faith are reflected in every aspect of civic life? Liberalism's answer is unequivocal. Such religions are the home of "extremists . . . fascists . . . enemies of the public good . . . authoritarian despots and so forth."
Today, most leftists, even many Marxists, take it for granted that religion ought to stay in the place where liberalism has confined it. However, Marxism, to be true to its vocation, cannot abide by the "public-private distinction that liberalism depends on and enforces"1 for the benefit of capitalism. Nor can religion if it is to be a vehicle of resistance of masses rather than a means for their domestication. Nor can even a strong populism of the sort embodied in the Bolivarian process, which is the reason why liberals are increasingly alarmed by its direction. In short, by siding with liberals on where and how the distinction between public and private is to be drawn, leftists are unwittingly reinforcing the cage that imprisons not only religion but also their own ideology.

1 Mark Lilla calls the aforementioned public-private distinction the "Great Separation" in his essay titled "The Politics of God" (New York Times, 19 August 2007). Siva Vaidhyanathan says in his response to Lilla:
I just don't see how one can claim that what Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad derides as "liberalism and Western-style democracy" has dominated anywhere for any significant period of time. Heck, this country had a functional democracy (with almost all adult citizens enfranchised and the state generally reflecting the will of the electorate) for a very brief period of time: either from 1965 through 2000 (Voting Rights Act through Bush's unelected takeover) or 1971 through 2000 (starting with the adoption of the 26th Amendment). (". . . And I Saw My Devil. And I Saw My Deep Blue Sea. . . ," Media Matters -- Altercation, 20 August 2007).
That is true: "liberal democracy" as we think we know it came into being only very recently and its time may have already passed. But the problem of the Great Separation, essentially of a piece with capitalism's disembedding of economy from the larger social order that Marx, Polanyi, and others clarified, and conflicts between those who accept the Great Separation on one hand and those who don't, whether they are religious or Marxist or strong populist, on the other hand are nevertheless quite real.

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