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The 95 thesis from Marx to Luther

“From Marx to Luther” is a calculated anachronism. Reading the 95 thesis as a post-note to The Capital is made arguable by three presuppositions of Luther’s theses. They are: Nominalist ontology, repentance vs. penance, and grace vs. money. Essentially, they correspond to the three tenets of Marx’s economic philosophy: his anti-metaphysical ontology, the dialectics of labour and capital, and the dialectics of humanity and money.

Marx saw in Luther a pre-modern revolutionary. We may find in Marx the underlying argument for a new Reformation.

Luther was a Nominalist. The Nominalist school considered that the properties and predicates of individuals do not truly exists. Only individuals or particulars possess ontological status. What Plato called ‘ideas’, and Aristotle called ‘substance’, represent only nomen (‘name’) shared by individual entities.

The consequences were disastrous for Scholastic theology, which saw its ontology relegated to a mere word game. William Occam, of whom Luther was a disciple, considered that the ways of salvation are not revealed to the human intellect. Accordingly, canonic laws and theological abstractions were only conjectures. Luther was looking for a new certitude based on God’s revelation within the individual. He took the Greek word metanoia (‘repentance’) for what it literally means – ‘beyond mind’. Accordingly, Luther held that repentance goes beyond the mere anthropological into an ontological event, by which human and divine will fuse together.

For his part, Marx rejected the idealist notion that universals are categories of pure reason. They rather represent the “production of ideas, of conceptions, of consciousness,” all that “men say, imagine, conceive,” and include such things as “politics, laws, morality, religion, metaphysics, etc.” (Karl Marx and Frederick Engels. “The German Ideology”. Karl Marx, “Introduction to a Critique of Political Economy”). Production is to Marx the process by which man, unlike all other species, creates and recreates his own world.

“If man’s feelings, passions, etc., are not merely anthropological phenomena in the (narrower) sense, but truly ontological affirmations of being (of nature), and if they are only really affirmed because their object exists for them as a sensual object…” (Economic-Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844). Alienated labour is production in which the above mentioned ontological affirmation of human nature is no longer present. The object of waged labour is something abstract, alien to the worker, rather than the sensual object of his feelings and passions.

Although they speak in different terms, Luther and Marx agree as regards the ontological status of the individual and the secondary character of ideas and abstract systems. This common ground is the starting point of our Marxist interpretation of the concept of penitence vs penance as expressed in Theses 1, 2, 30, 33, and 34.

1. Our Lord and Master Jesus Christ, when He said Poenitentiam agite, willed that the whole life of believers should be repentance.

2. The word (repentance) cannot be properly understood as referring to the sacrament of penance, i.e. confession and satisfaction, as administered by the clergy…

30. No one is sure of the reality of his own contrition, much less of receiving plenary forgiveness…

33. We should be most carefully on our guard against those who say that the papal indulgences are an inestimable divine gift, and that a man is reconciled to God by them.

34. For the grace conveyed by these indulgences relates simply to the penalties of the sacramental “satisfactions” decreed merely by man.

The contradiction between repentance, as a whole life, and penance, as a work demanded by the Church, is the contradiction between the affirmation of humanity in relation to the object of his needs and passions, and waged labour. Penance is alienated religious work.

Let’s move to Luther’s next point: the contradiction between the monetary satisfaction of penance and grace.

56. The treasures of the church, out of which the pope dispenses indulgences, are not sufficiently spoken of or known among the people of Christ…

62. The true treasure of the church is the Holy gospel of the glory and the grace of God.

63. It is right to regard this treasure as most odious, for it makes the first to be the last.

64. On the other hand, the treasure of indulgences is most acceptable, for it makes the last to be the first.

What Luther takes aim at is not so much the greed and the corruption of the Church, as the quantification of “the true treasures of the Church” that have been commodified and downgraded to market value. Luther notices that the indulgences market “makes the last to be the first”. We return to Marx.

The distorting and confounding of all human and natural qualities, the fraternisation of impossibilities – the divine power of money – lies in its character as men’s estranged, alienating and self-disposing species-nature. Money is the alienated ability of mankind.

If I long for a particular dish or want to take the mail-coach because I am not strong enough to go by foot, money fetches me the dish and the mail-coach: that is, it converts my wishes from something in the realm of imagination, translates them from their meditated, imagined or desired existence into their sensuous, actual existence – from imagination to life, from imagined being into real being. In effecting this mediation, [money] is the truly creative power.

No doubt the demand also exists for him who has no money, but his demand is a mere thing of the imagination without effect or existence for me, for a third party, for the [others], and which therefore remains even for me unreal and objectless. The difference between effective demand based on money and ineffective demand based on my need, my passion, my wish, etc., is the difference between being and thinking, between that which exists within me merely as an idea and the idea which exists as a real object outside of me.

If I have no money for travel, I have no need – that is, no real and realisable need – to travel. If I have the vocation for study but no money for it, I have no vocation for study – that is, no effective, no true vocation. On the other hand, if I have really no vocation for study but have the will and the money for it, I have an effective vocation for it. Money as the external, universal medium and faculty (not springing from man as man or from human society as society) for turning an image into reality and reality into a mere image, transforms the real essential powers of man and nature into what are merely abstract notions and therefore imperfections and tormenting chimeras, just as it transforms real imperfections and chimeras – essential powers which are really important, which exist only in the imagination of the individual – into real powers and faculties. In the light of this characteristic alone, money is thus the general distorting of individualities which turns them into their opposite and confers contradictory attributes upon their attributes.

Since money, as the existing and active concept of value, confounds and confuses all things, it is the general confounding and confusing of all things – the world upside-down – the confounding and confusing of all natural and human qualities.

He who can buy bravery is brave, though he be a coward. As money is not exchanged for any one specific quality, for any one specific thing, or for any particular human essential power, but for the entire objective world of man and nature, from the standpoint of its possessor it therefore serves to exchange every quality for every other, even contradictory, quality and object: it is the fraternisation of impossibilities. It makes contradictions embrace (Marx, 1844).

Analogous to Luther, Marx is not concerned primarily with capitalist greed and corruption. The problem with money is that of trying to quantify and abstract the ontological affirmation of human need and passion, and of losing its true substance in the process. Marx’s concern is thus essentially religious. “The last becomes the first”. The absence of human qualities is compensated by the illusion of being able to buy them. The cardinal sin of the market goes down to being ultimately a materialist form of selling indulgences.

On the flip side, the sin of postmodern religion is that of being only another place where commodities are produced to satisfy the demands of the market. Pastors, evangelists, administrators, theologians, faith-healers, saints and crooks, are either business entrepreneurs investing their capital for profit, or simply waged workers alienated from the object of their passion, that has once motivated them to choose a religious vocation. Every believer is born again as a consumer on the religious market. Make no mistake. Doctor Tetzel was the first Evangelical.

Time to re-nail the 95 theses.

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.