Thursday, July 21, 2011

The Resurgence of Religion and the Religion of Capitalism

Wendy Brown presents

Finally, after three days of exhilarating and sophisticated theorizing that had up to that point skirted the issue of religion, Wendy Brown was revealed. Her excellent presentation entitled, "The Religion of Capitalism," was a complex close reading of Marx that sought to redeem Marx for the contemporary world by explaining the seemingly unexpected ‘resurgence’ of religiosity. However, her analysis was also somewhat concerning for the manner in which she retains terminologies and definitions of religion used by Marx, that contain lingering sentiments of a colonial past that used the irrational religiosity of the native ‘other’ as a justification for enslavement, subjugation and genocide.

Brown introduced Marx’s thoughts on religion through his idea that the critique of religion is a prerequisite for all critique. Quite expertly she explored what he meant by this and offered three possible ways of understanding this idea. Firstly, she suggested that he may have meant that the critique of religion must precede all other critique. Alternatively, she continued, he may have meant that all the varying aspects of human life contain some form of religiosity which needs to be exposed in order to advance. Finally she offers the alternative that he may simply have been suggesting that a critique of religion reveals a lot about human nature. It is through this nuanced reading of Marx that Brown suggests his redemption from accusations of him as a secularist, to which I will later return.

But what did Marx understand by religion? In order to address this, Brown draws first on Feurbach whom she describes as an inspiration for Marx’s thought. According to Feurbach, the human is the only species that is conscious of the existence of the entire species. However the human is only capable of experiencing the individual. This ability of persons to only experience the individual while being conscious and in many ways dependent on the entire species results in a crisis which is then projected onto God.

Following Feurbach, Brown describes Marx's conception of religion as a sensuous experience that is a result of human alienation which precipitates into the projection of human capacities and potentialities onto the image of the other, namely God. Marx therefore accepts religiosity as a real experience while at the same time identifying its emergence in the human consciousness as a result of a reactionary response to alienation.

For Marx this definition of religion appears as one of the central points in his critique of capitalism. As Brown describes, Marx observes how capitalism, despite claiming to be a secularizing force that lays bare the world, continues to alienate those excluded from the promise of wealth and prosperity. This alienating effect, results in a lingering of religiosity that takes on new forms in terms of the divinity of money, and the fetishisation of commodities.

According to Marx “man” makes God, and God makes “man.” Similarly in a critique of capitalism, humans make commodities, which in turn make humans, and the world. Therefore, according to Marx the fetishisation of commodities represents the inherently religious aspect of capitalism in that there is a disjunction between the place of production and the place of exchange which distorts and mystifies the origin, production and value of commodities in a similar manner to the way in which the "mist enveloped regions of the religious world" distort and mystify the nature of God.

It is from this lingering religiosity of capitalism that Brown was able to bring the analysis forward to the 21st century in order to analyze the effects of neo-liberalism as an alienating force that results in the resurgence of religiosity. In doing so she offered an example of a numerology cult that that appeared in Thailand after the arrival of neo-liberal capitalism destroyed the agricultural economy, literally impoverishing those who previously relied on that sector. The result she describes was mass urbanization, which in the face of unemployment was accompanied by the increased proliferation of the lottery industry as individuals excluded from the promise of neo-liberal employment and prosperity turned towards the religious-like hope in the lottery as a means of salvation. Places where the politics of revolution have been replaced by the politics of the holy ghost.

In an analysis of Browns presentation I would like to present a few questions. The first concerns the need to situate the definitions of religion as presented by Marx and Feurbach in their political and social contexts. This is something that Brown herself touches on when she draws on Taylor, Asad and Masazuwa in their analysis of secularism as far from universal in that it is a product of the specific, situated modality of the subject, namely the late 20th century European. Particularly, she acknowledges that these analyses of secularism have identified it as a formation that associated reason and modernity with Christianity while relegating all other religious traditions to the realm of the irrational. Importantly, Brown avoids this categorization of Marx through her re-conceptualisation of his attitude towards religion. In his defence, she contends that Marx’s concern with religious consciousness, in his critique of capitalism places him outside of subtractionist thought, partly because he identifies the lingering remains of religion as continuous and partly from her re-reading of Marx’s attitude towards religion that she argues is a nuance thus far overlooked.

However, I would contend that this situated consideration of Marx is unavoidable since the tendency of European modernity to associate Christianity with rational reason while relegating all 'others' to the realm of the irrational is far from innocent. Turning to the south, the work of David Chidester is of critical importance. In a variety of his work, Chidester explores and exposes how the conflation of European modernity with Christianity and reason by scholars, missionaries and colonial authorities, was repeatedly used as a means of dehumanizing the irrational, savage, barbarian 'other' in the desire for conquest, subjugation and plunder. Particularly relevant to this discussion is how the study of fetishism, thought to be the religious worship of inanimate objects by primitive natives, was used by anthropologists and colonial authorities (sometimes in dual roles) in order to understand the colonized native as an archaic, pre-modern formulation of human development, who was by implication susceptible to capture, subjugation and murder.

Returning to Marx we have to consider that his concern with religion was that its lingering effects are integral to the alienating effects of capitalism. Religion in Marx's argument appears in order to make a statement about the manner in which the workings of capitalism serve to continue the alienating causes of religiosity that it claims to eradicate through its message of secularism. Religion is used as a negative analysis of how capitalism turns the German proletariat into an irrational group of alienated individuals yearning for the promise of prosperity, analytically inseparable from the manner in which the irrational 'other' yearns for the promise of heaven.

Therefore, when anthropologists choose to focus on the worlds most impoverished and immiserated exteriors as sites for the resurgence of religion, they risk retaining a particular sentiment of condescendence towards religion and the religious. However rather than presenting a binary between the rational, Christian, European, and the irrational, savage other this condescendence is more subtle. Here a position of condescendence is established between a rational, modern, secular, academic, middle class subject and the poor, impoverished, excluded ‘other’. This condescending analysis that continues to treat religion as the irrational result of the alienating effects of capitalism, runs the risk of once more sidelining the question of religion and religiosity that the ‘resurgence’ of religion has brought to the surface.

An interesting example of the varied nature of religion in the contemporary world can be found in the work of Vali Nasr, appropriately entitled "Meccanomics." Nasr offers a pertinent example of a prosperous, capitalist yet conservative and religious industrial elite in the Anatolian regions of Turkey that have arisen to prominence from the booming textile and manufacturing industry in the area. Interestingly for this discussion, Nasr explains how this rising elite has embraced a revival of religion that is particularly ritualistic and austere yet prosperous and liberal in its economic and political inclinations.

A theory of religious revival in the contemporary world that draws on peculiarly western, colonial constructs of religion risks alienating the 'other' through the continuance of condescending binaries between the rational secular and the irrational other. Brown, through her excellent presentation, therefore reminds us to think carefully about the nature and substance of religion and religiosity and to think more broadly about theories that may explain the varied instances and conditions where religion remains an important aspect of people’s lives.

Shaheed Tayob