Thursday, 22 November 2012

Politics and Religion


When discussing politics, on discovering that I have a set of beliefs and values, I am occasionally accused of having a kind of 'religious faith'. This does not go down at all well with a 'traditional Marxist' but upon reflection I have found this not to be an insult but rather more of a historical misunderstanding. We live in an age where the division of labour has been introduced to almost every discipline – including the intellectual pursuits. The 'Natural Sciences' were a development of Philosophy just as Chemistry owes it's origins to Alchemy and as Astronomy does to Astrology. We now live in an age where more and more people know more and more about less and less. Specialisms have come to define knowledge itself. The 'experts' are the new priesthood who zealously guard the portals of knowledge. Some people find it difficult to converse outside of their 'area of expertise' and would consider conclusions about a subject they have no in-depth understanding of as merely  an example of personal prejudice. This is all very well for some of the sciences but it is useless when it comes to the practice of that most 'multidisciplinary' of human endeavours – politics. Without an understanding of History, Economics and Philosophy no polemical activity is possible. Politics is not only impossible under such conditions it demands multi disciplinary integration uncompromisingly. Those who speak on economics without reference to politics (as many try to do) can have no insights into human reality at all. Religion, as with politics, needs many realms of knowledge to produce its picture of the human condition. But Christianity in the West has become rather confined as a 'personal religion'. The Protestant tradition of a personal relationship with God has turned it into a kind of individual consumerism. As with other personal relationships the subject becomes highly emotionally charged that in turn leads to a certain reluctance to discuss such ideas openly. Faith becomes the last defence in the light of any criticisms. The need to believe becomes more important than what is believed. Do Socialists share this 'need to believe' and is it this that provokes some to accuse us of being 'religious' about our political ideas? 
  Any study of the Reformation and the later revolution in England can only conclude that the political confrontations of the elite were being fought within a religious ideological arena. An attempt to separate the two in men’s minds or in the ensuing power struggle would be ridiculous. Henry VIII’s need to secure a male heir (and so a divorce) was also part of the Tudor conquest of absolute power in England. Church and state have been inextricably linked since then. As our culture became increasingly secular the division of religion and politics became more pronounced. Certainly the early Socialists were keen to make this division - preferring to align themselves with a ‘scientific’ perspective and a consequent ‘objective analysis’. Much debate has ensued about whether the art of politics can ever be considered scientific (Popper’s law of falsification would imply it cannot). I am not convinced of the importance of this debate anymore since mankind will always practice ‘politics’ (scientific or religious) because it is actually part of what it is to be human. Mankind tells itself stories to explain existence and so give meaning to life. The stories can be scientific, religious, romantic, cynical and even mythic but, in the end, only you can make the decision about which ones reflect your life. No expert, be he scientist, politician or priest can or should make this choice for you. If you find such a story that fires your imagination you can then subject it to vigorous critical analysis (many writers will aid you in this since the opposing perspective is always available). If you are still confident in its value then the test of history can be applied. Does it go some way in describing how the world reached its present condition? If you do not subject your conclusions to such a rigorous critique then you run the risk of never being wrong - and that indicates an inferiority complex rather than intelligence. Marx thought there to be only two relevant narratives since, historically, there were only two classes left and that their opposing perspectives were the only arena for meaningful political debate. Such was his belief in the human ability to reason through critique that he was certain the working class (the vast majority of mankind) would see socialism as the only rational option. Personally I still find this the most compelling analysis available. Having discussed process I’m aware the answer to the question I posed earlier remains unanswered. With the aid of this analysis I will now attempt to do so. 
  Over and above the contemporary habit of dividing disciplines into specialisms is there still a good reason to separate religion and politics ? Does this distinction in some way define the two? A faith driven value system with or without a deity or an analysis based on dialectical reason with man himself at it’s centre? Both serve the same human need - meaning and structure. Both have been subverted into authoritarian social structures. But does such a distinction hide more than it reveals? I find the area they share more interesting and I think there’s a word that can powerfully bridge the gap - redemption. In its original meaning it meant redeeming one’s homeland (the Jewish tradition). For Christians it’s about original sin and forbidden knowledge. For Socialists? I think its about redeeming our humanity from the depredations that followed the invention of private property (expulsion from Eden). While shopping in a supermarket recently I found, because of arthritis, I could not bend down far enough to reach the last loaf that was buried deep on a bottom shelf. Suddenly a toddler disappeared into the recess and emerged with the loaf beaming from ear to ear as he handed it to me. He broke my heart because I realised that my generation had not created a better world where this truly human behaviour can thrive. So yes, I need to believe in human redemption that will transform the world. As someone once said: ‘what have we got to lose but our chains?’

Monday, 1 October 2012

Bread and Circuses

It’s been a difficult year for Socialists in Olde England. Hopefully the last of the little Union flags will flutter into obscurity after the ‘Paralympic Games’. This icon of patriotism can then return to business as usual as a symbol of the exploitation of the majority and the persecution of the poor. By coincidence in an attempt to escape the ubiquity of sport on TV I stumbled upon the movie ‘Spartacus’. In its depiction of one of history’s earliest class struggles ( the slave revolt in ancient Rome) it struck me as ironic that I had just been watching the raising of the Jamaican flag in victory at another gladiatorial arena - the London Olympics. Ironic, of course, because ethnically and culturally Jamaica was a product of the British slave trade. Africans were taken to the Caribbean to slave on the sugar plantations. Despite their ‘emancipation’ in the 19th century and Jamaican ‘Independence ‘ in the 20th (celebrated in parallel with the Olympics) here we still had the spectacle of gladiatorial competition in a vast arena - but are they still just slaves performing for their masters?
  Amid the euphoria of the heroic performances of ‘team GB’ many would be incredulous at the depiction of the Olympic Games as a continuation of the Ancient Roman policy of ‘Bread and Circuses’. If the Emperor could provide entertainment for the Roman mob in the gladiatorial arena they could be distracted and controlled. Similarly the original ethos of the Modern Olympiad (individual excellence and international brotherhood) has been perverted into a grubby orgy of nationalism and profiteering that through marketing has become just another agent of consumer distraction. The athletes have to prostitute themselves to nationalism and advertising to be allowed to partake. They are, like most of us, slaves to consumerism. Even the mighty Husain Bolt has to confine himself to meaningless macho poses rather than articulating anything of significance - such is the power of the authoritarian sports officialdom. What a contrast to the truly heroic activities of the likes of Jesse Owens and the black power salutes of the sixties (happy days!). Wouldn’t it be magnificent to see an athlete reject the geographical accident of his birth place and the commercial imperative as defining him or her. International sport has become entirely politicised as is clearly demonstrated by the insistence of the establishment that sport and politics don’t mix (whenever this kind of platitude is used you can be sure of its complete political integration with bourgeois values). And now we come to the ’legacy’ of the London Olympiad - the moral propaganda attempt to justify the vast cost.
  The reintroduction of the competitive sporting ethos to schools is one of the promised legacies of the games. This is to replace the perceived ‘prizes for everyone’ liberal ethos. To the surprise of some Socialists are not opposed to competition in sports. The infantile ego can be indulged as long as sport is seen purely as fun and entertainment. Any attempt to introduce such a relationship into adult life should be treated as ridiculous. Capitalist propagandists continue to infantilise human relationships in this way trying to convince us that we are all competitors rather than interdependent. Ever since mankind looked back at the ‘Earthrise’ from the moon in 1969 we see our shared home as hanging precariously alone in the awful emptiness of space. We had the chance to ‘grow up’ as a species and leave the our brutal childhood of international competition (war) behind us. That this has not been achieved is testament to the power of the propaganda machinery of capitalism. Every time a parent induces their child to identify with the flag and to see others as competitors they betray human potential. Because the ego of the young is so easy to manipulate in this way many of us never mature emotionally and are easy prey to consumerism and its sick competitive values so essential for the survival of capitalism. Unfortunately sport has become one of the most important elements in this perversion of human values. Spartacus may well recognize the slave mentality of many international sportsmen and women. We still await the arrival of a famous socialist sporting hero - but perhaps this is just a particular fantasy of mine that is in reality an oxymoron!