Oct 23, 2007

libertarian theology and resistance to capital

the following was posted as a comment to the blog, Democracy and Hip-Hop Project, as a response to the ongoing discussion on anti-imperialism and reaction.

Matthew offers insights on the need to engage people of faith and to support and help expand "libertarian" religious expressions of thought and resistance to authority and domination. a central thrust to his argument is that militant secularism has "boxed out" alternative and liberatory visions on the basis that they emanate from a theology, rather than the materialist rationalism of the Enlightenment's liberal middle classes. citing the Neo-Con agenda for re-making the Islamic Middle East as the most blatant expression of this secular arrogance, Matthew also challenges the secular "racism of the Left" by asking the question, "when are we going to actually propose alternatives that engage with religious thought seriously in its own vocabulary, language, etc.? When will revolutionaries throw their full support behind Muslims who are attempting to articulate libertarian Islamic theologies of liberation"?

Hey KB,

This is a fascinating and timely discussion. I agree with the Three Way Fight folks that sometimes anti-imperialist forces can take on an insurgent Right wing or fascist character, and that there are some Islamic versions of that in the Middle East today.

But it seems to me that Three Way Fight tends to overemphasize the influence of these right-wingers. Do the Al Qaeda networks and the Taliban really have that much clout internationally? How many everyday Muslims actually support them?

People like David Horowitz and the organizers of Islamofascism week at campuses across the country next week claim that most Muslims support these fools. But that is just witch-hunting and imperial propaganda. Obviously the 3-Way Fight folks aren’t coming from the same angle as Horowitz and it seems they would be equally as opposed to his white supremacy.

But could they also be overemphasizing the power of the Islamic right? I would argue that Al Qeda and the Taliban are relatively marginal in terms of the politics of the world’s several billion Muslims. It seems there is much more international grassroots support for groups like Hizb’Allah and Hamas because they are the most prominent forces currently on the ground mounting mass struggles against Israeli apartheid and for social reconstruction. But are these groups really fascist or on the Right? In many ways they have more in common with authoritarian Leftism: their program is a kind of revolutionary cultural nationalism with a state capitalist/ social democratic emphasis on social justice and aid from above.

In this, they are no doubt oppressive forces poised to betray the workers, women, queer folks, and other everyday Muslims who have at times expressed very militant aspirations for democratic self-government (for example the popular committees of the Intifada). But this betrayal is not a result of Hamas or Hizb’Allah’s Islamic character. After all, plenty of secular nationalist and socialist parties in the Middle East performed similar betrayals in earlier stages of anti-colonial struggles, and that’s at least one of the reasons why so many folks have turned to Islamic politics as a supposed alternative.

Secular populist, Leftist, and state capitalist regimes have also launched brutal campaigns against women, queer folks, indigenous peoples, and others, (as Matthew recognized with Chavez and Ortega). Reinventing an earlier secular nationalism or Communism is not viable considering these historical failures. Whether Islamic or not, something new is desperately needed. The key question is, where will folks go once they see the new Hizb’Allah and Hamas “Islamic” versions of state capitalism betray them once again?

I would argue that this will not automatically be in a secular direction. It could also be a different type of Islamic politics, a more libertarian or direct-democratic vision from below. This is of course not guaranteed but it is one viable possibility worth fighting for.

It is good to see some activists in the US working to critique both US imperialist attacks on Arabs and Muslims and also the patriarchal and authoritarian aspects of right-wing Islamic movements today. These are important first steps. But when are we going to actually propose alternatives that engage with religious thought seriously in its own vocabulary, language, etc.? When will revolutionaries throw their full support behind Muslims who are attempting to articulate libertarian Islamic theologies of liberation? Are they despairing that such folks do not exist in the Muslim community? In my experiences, they do exist, but are often boxed out and squeezed between the secular chauvinism and racism of the Left, the conservatives of the mosque and Muslim Students Association leadership, and the authoritarianism of insurgent Islamic tendencies. What types of political organization will open up space for new Muslim possibilities? I would argue that the largely atheist forms the Left has taken historically are inadequate for this task.

Many young folks are slowly but surely becoming fed up with the bootlicking leadership of groups like the MSA who constantly try to prove to whitey that they are the “Good Muslims” unlike the “Bad Muslims over there.” Many of these young Muslims will see no alternative in authoritarian Islamic insurgents and will turn instead to some version of secular Arab or Muslim power politics. Others will similarly see no alternative in authoritarian Islamic insurgents and will turn instead to some vision of Islamic liberation theology. Revolutionaries of all religious and non-religious backgrounds in the US need to be prepared to respect, support, and understand, and further BOTH potential developments and cannot subordinate either one to the other. These tendencies will only be vibrant if they cross fertilize each other.

Incidentally, I would argue a similar orientation is needed to deal with Christian imperialism and fundamentalism in the US. This is not the place to articulate a full vision on this front, but preliminarily, we need to recognize that a) liberal, multicultural and “interfaith” oriented Christian theologies generally serve as smoke-screens for US Empire because they argue that the US is a progressive force in the world because God ordained America (manifest destiny) to spread separation of church and state, dialogue, and tolerance in order to uplift backwards Third World cultures, especially Islamic ones. b) this liberal theological consensus is fracturing domestically because it cannot contain the frustrations of class tensions, de-industrialization, people loosing their jobs, etc. c) one response to this is an insurgent, populist Christian right that has definite fascist groupings within it that function as vanguards with influence beyond their numbers. d) we need to combat both the liberal imperial theology as well as this insurgent Christian right (we need a 3 way fight), e) it is not enough to simply make a secular critique of both theologies and encourage people to leave Christianity; we need to actively develop Christian liberation theologies that pose insurgent alternatives to both. A top priority in this should be to articulate, in uncompromising and militant Christian prophetic language, why it is crucial for Christians to stand in solidarity with everyday Muslims against imperialism, white supremacy, and fascist attacks.

I’m glad you pointed out some of the legacies that such a liberation theology could draw from, ranging from the late medieval peasant uprisings to the militant abolitionism of John Brown and David Walker. This whole history needs to be retrieved and reconsidered. Again, I can’t go into sufficient depth here, but in many ways it wasn’t capitalism that waged an assault on feudalism in Europe but rather a whole range of insurgent Christian heretic groups, as Sylvia Federici has documented. Capitalism was a middle class counter-revolution that attempted to co-opt this anti-feudal movement and establish a new ruling class. As a result, the middle class’s secularism is not unambiguously progressive. Enlightenment liberals struggled against the Church hierarchy and its feudal ties, but they also struggled against direct-democratic Christian visions from below and attempted to contain the self-activity of peasant, artisan, and early workers who were becoming Christian revolutionaries. Nowadays this middle class secularism takes its most destructive form in the NeoConservatives who act like Napoleon, attempting to shove the Liberal revolution down Muslim peoples’ throats from above and secularize them whether they like it or not. Revolutionaries must distinguish ourselves from this imperial project at all costs, while still mounting our own struggles against religious authorities whether these be conservative, liberal, or insurgent Rightists.

What is missing in the mix are revolutionary religious forces from a direct democratic perspective who can jump into the 3 way fight without subordinating their distinctive religious content and vision. These urgently need to be articulated and organized.




Anonymous said...

This comment is problematic because it views secularism as an object wielded by an outside force, and thrusted upon people. But it is not so simple, not historically nor currently.

Enlightenment rationality comes about through its criticism of (ie. engagement with) religion. It also doesn't simply occur at the same time as changes in the social order, but its concept of agency is also central to the breaking of feudal ties and the establishment of the individual, wage labor and citizenship in a secular state.

Presently as well, the comment is problematic. Secular people in Iraq are not simply agents of the enlightenment, as some "foreign" project set to colonize "the people". Iraqis who have organized themselves in labor groups, in womens defense groups, and in student groups, who struggle for a secular Iraqi state actually struggle against the U.S. efforts to create a non-secular state in Iraq. In this example, these Iraq groups fight for the separation of religion from the state, against the plans of the occupying force.

I think these are important things to consider in thinking about the issues raised by Matt's comments. Yes, we should not close ourselves off in advance to social actors who come from a religious perspective (even if we ourselves might be atheists or agnostics), but rather must search for ways to work across some differences. (We also need to know where to draw lines.) But we also shouldn't and needn't treat secularism or enlightenment rationality as simply an outside invader - especially in the case where Iraqis themselves identify with that cause and struggle for it to succeed.

Anonymous said...

I'm not sure this comment, while it does good to avoid a top-down approach to history, meets the challenge of Matt's response.

Matt is striking a moving unity, a dialectic between authoritarian secularism and the abstract identity of authoritarian theology which MAY (not inevitably) find its concrete unity (its negation of the negation) in liberation theology. It could also invariably find this unity in a democratic secularism, but I don't see many visible aspects of this possibility en masse today.

Neither do I think that Matt's comments imply that secularism, as a content, is something injected from without. Secularism and theology can be speculated on their own as independent contents, but in our instance we are looking at secularism and theology as a form of philosophical expression for a different content, that of a mass movement. We are looking not necessarily at secularism or religion in and of itself, but how either has to come to represent organic movements fighting for liberation today.

We are coming out of an age where secularism as an organic and critical form has swung round into its opposite, into a state form (i.e. Stalinism) that is diametrically opposed to its content (the working class). This state form of secularism is not exclusive to the old Second World bloc, but typifies even Western society as well.

I think the WCPI's complicity with laws that regulate religious behavior indicates an older and more marginal State Capitalist manifestation of secularism, but is still a relevant example of forms which have betrayed their content.

This state form of secularism (again I'm talking of its manifestation, not secularism as content) represents the containment of the movement from which it sprang and which is traceable to the French Revolution of 1789 and which saw its complete negation within Stalinism (which became the top-down enforcement of secularism).

Liberation theology represents, contrarily, a potential new form by which the working class is critically engaging itself and its diametrically opposed enemy, the capital relation, in a way that does not have to mean its incorporation into the existing State.

Furthermore, the oppression of women, homosexuals, etc. cannot be relegated to something inherent within Islam. It can be pointed to within the Qur'an as well as the Bible, passages which speak to women's submission to men, to the decadence of homosexuality, et. al, but what is more important is not these literal translations of ancient texts, but how people give new content to these texts, expand their meaning, and relegate aspects of it which does not speak to contemporary issues and conflicts to the proverbial dust bins of history.

The peasants of 16th century Germany critically engaged in a religiousity that became their logic for struggling against the inequalities between themselves and the Roman church. I don't think we need a recreation of the Peasant Wars in Germany, but in our speculations about which direction a working class movement may inevitably go, the philosophical forms which correspond to it do not need be secular if the logic which flows from theology is one of liberation.

I'm of the secular bent myself, but I've come to know some folks recently who are Muslim, Christian, and Buddhist and who place their vision for the future social organization clearly on the side of socialism.

I sincerely hope that was coherent. Its late and I haven't had a lot of sleep. I'll be happy to clarify any half-baked points.

Anonymous said...

The disturbing thing about framing the discussion this way is how it marginalizes the interests of women. It is in effect a discussion among men.

The fact that tens of millions of women live under brutal, mysogynist, self-styled Islamic regimes, militias, religious enforcers and warlord armies is virtually ignored in this paradigm, as if it were some marginal side-effect of Islamophobia.

This after all that has happened in Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq and dozens of other countries, where every version of "progressive" and "moderate" political Islam has been advanced over a period of decades. Did any of these trends prove to be principled, effective, or even promising as antidotes to male terror and reaction?

It's fine for Western leftists to postulate a form of Islamic spirituality that will save the day. But in the real world, dozens of tendencies of political Islam are already in motion, already showing what they stand for. Which are doing better than the secular women in RAWA and OWFI in confronting fundamentalism and fascism? (Perhaps these women got secularism shoved down their throats by the neocons?)

What is missing from the 3 way fight, at least in the Western Left, is not a yearning for "religious forces from a direct democratic perspective." What is missing is an understanding of the centrality of women's freedom in proletarian politics. What we must "distiguish ourselves from at all costs" is not forced secularization but male authoritarianism and complicity.

While men fight over how to divide up the world and its women, only those who adopt the interests and point of view of proletarian women themselves can claim to fight for freedom.