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Amazing Grace, or the rise of Evangelical biopower

Two things happened in England in 1772. Judge William Murray concluded in Somerset v Stewart that a slave could not to be removed from England against his will. Secondly, John Newton composed Amazing Grace, his poetic confession. Newton had been a slave trader himself, before becoming an Anglican clergy, and, late in his life, an abolitionist. The two events are tips of the iceberg. They bridge below the waterline across the coalescing body of eighteenth-century biopower.

One should notice that neither Somerset v Stewart, nor Newton’s celebrated repentance, had any problem with slavery per se. Murray’s ruling  was exclusively founded on technical issues with the Common Law. Newton stopped cursing and drinking, and no longer neglected private devotion, but continued in slave trade after his conversion.

It is not difficult to see why the use of the moral argument would have set a dangerous precedent in court. After all, the debt prison was not better than slavery. Murray took also precautions with his language, as not to impede on slavery as such. However, how can we account for Newton’s blind spot on the wickedness of his trade?

The plain answer is that Amazing Grace marks in the realm of Religion what Somerset v Stewart did in that of in Law: a mutation in slave trade. I give credit for this definition to the Anglican theologian John Milbank. Below is the quote in full.

American conservative evangelical Christianity in its most recent modes is precisely a new mutation of the slave trade. Pursuit of profits and the salvation of souls becomes so seamlessly fused in the mode of a new ‘Church enterprise’ (involving huge material and abstract capital resources) that here effectively, the ‘born-again’ become themselves the produced, exchanged and capitalized commodities. A new evangelical church’s measure of success, both in spiritual and in financial terms, is precisely its ‘ownership’ of so many souls (and thereby indirectly bodies) or potential to own so many more souls. Of course the notion that these souls are really owned by Jesus, and so only held by men through a sort of proxy, is the alibi which ensures that this enslavement does not appear to be such.

John Newton’s conversion was the epitome of the emerging ‘born-again’ movement. According to the Catholic scholar Hans Kung, the core of the Evangelical movement consists in a form of  “emotional self-redemption”. It is the insulating subjectivity of the “born-again” experience that allows one to pay lip-service to Christ while worshiping Mammon.

Let’s consider this political/religious mutation in the context of historical evolution. The master/servant relationship has gone through three stages in human history. The first stage is slavery de jure. A person is the legal property of another person. In the second stage, serfdom, the master/servant relationship is mediated through the relationship of both to the land. The landlord owns the land, not the servant. However, the serf is a slave of his master de facto, as he is bound to the land de jure. The third stage is capitalism. The master/servant relationship is mediated through their relationship to money. The master owns the capital. The worker owns himself, but sells his/her time and skills to the master, because  life depends on salary.

Slavery was reintroduced in Christianity during the New World conquest. Serfdom was problematic in America for multiple reasons, one of them being the absence of feudal relations among the natives. The middle-ages peasant could be chained to the land because he had already been tied to it for generations. The lord and the serf shared in the same concept  of land-property. The natives had none of these.

Forced labor was a convenient option for the plantation owner, so it was enforced in court and sanctioned from the pulpit. However, forced labor was problematic with capitalism, which needed free labor movement. Somerset v Stewart reflects  the challenge on the legal system to reconcile colonial slavery with capitalism. It acquiescence in slavery while upholding free labor movement. The tension is even more clear in America.

Wall Street was established in 1711 in New York as the city’s first slave market.  In a few decades, it evolved into the New York Stock & Exchange Board, known today as the New York Stock Exchange. The ultra-capitalist Wall Street continued to thrive on speculations with cotton and cane sugar from slave labor, even after slavery was officially ended in the northern states. The first Capitol building, where the passing of the Bill Of Rights took place, was also located in Wall Street.

It is at the same time that we witness the birth of Evangelical biopower.

Michel Foucault coined the term biopower for power that makes all life its object. Biopower is a modern phenomenon. Premodern societies, even the most tyrannical and inquisitorial, lacked control over the body. Modern power, however, trends toward the systematic surveillance and policing of biological life.

In his work Truth and Juridical Forms, Foucault sets forth the thesis that certain English sects in the seventeenth century were precursors and served as models for modern biopolitics. Foucault contends that knowledge of juridical truth empowered the upper classes in the seventeenth century England to subject the commoners to arbitrary punishments and confiscate their assets. Religious dissents were particularly targeted.

In order to preempt legal actions against their own people, the Independents developed strict self-policing and surveillance practices. Every member in the congregation was expected to spy on all parishioners, and be spied himself by all of them. Private life was open to public scrutiny by the congregation.

Such self-policing movements became a valuable asset for the upper classes during the industrial revolution. Urban migration generated the need for new  forms of mass control. Living at minimum wage, thrown cyclically into temporary unemployment, often disabled by work accidents, the urban proletariat became an epitome for alcoholism and amoral behavior. Even worse, it became the favorite recipient of radical ideas, like socialism or communism.

Mass revivals and street evangelism were strongly encouraged and never in lack of generous funding. Abstinence and tranquility in domestic life were presented as the marks of being born again. The church was also a safety network for the unemployed and the sick. To this effect, it had to inspect the lives of the new converts, to see if they were sufficiently frugal and modest to qualify for help.

Religious surveillance and self-policing proved more financially convenient than government-sponsored programs. Apocalyptic thinking was also seen as an antidote against socialism and syndicalist radicalism. All in all, revivalism was both a way to combat social ills, and a political instrument for the control of the working class. It was under such circumstances that religious biopower became a model for modern biopolitics.