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Marx’ opium statement revisited

Karl Marx is back. The specter is haunting again. The Capital appears to be vindicated by the crisis of global capitalism.

I will leave economics with the economists. My interest is only in one single aspect of the global market: the cancerously thriving market of postmodern religion. Like every other cancer, it progresses toward the destruction of its own host. The ultimate victim of commodified religion will be religion itself. In order to decode the symptomatology of this process, I will conjure – to use one of Marx’ favorite cliches – the ghost of the young Marx.

This brings certainly to mind the predictable truism ‘religion is the opium of the people’. Below is the full statement as it appears in the Introduction Marx’ project-book, Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right.

Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people. Criticism has plucked the imaginary flowers on the chain not in order that man shall continue to bear that chain without fantasy or consolation, but so that he shall throw off the chain and pluck the living flower.

In the preceding paragraph, Marx notices that “the criticism of religion has been essentially completed”. This ‘criticism’ consists in a secular version of Christianity, attempted by Hegel and Feuerbach.

Hegel developed his religious philosophy around the concept of alienation. The alienated spirit represents human reason that cannot recognise itself in the authoritarian institutions and dogmas of its own creation. While Hegel defines alienation as a condition of every religion, he nonetheless discriminates among various degrees of religious alienation. In this respect, he notices that: “the objectivity of the deity increased in direct proportion to the increase in the corruption and slavery of man, and this objectivity is in reality no more than a revelation, a manifestation of the spirit of the age”. Once the age that has given birth to certain deities or canons passes away, they will turn more and more into abstract and authoritarian traditions. The alienated humanity is no longer able to recognise himself in his own creations.

Ludwig Feuerbach operated a sort of materialist inversion of Hegel’s concept of alienation. To him, the objective deity was no longer the universal spirit lost into externality. It was rather a psychological projection of man’s latent potential. Marx endorses Feuerbach’s inversion. “Religion is, indeed, the self-consciousness and self-esteem of man who has either not yet won through to himself, or has already lost himself again”. Yet from this point on, he parts with Hegel/Feuerbach and develops his own theory of alienation.

To Marx, the origin of religious alienation was not to be found in religion itself, but in the state of society. “This state and this society produce religion, which is an inverted consciousness of the world, because they are an inverted world”. One recalls the scene in “The Dictator” where Chaplin unknowingly flies the plane upside down. He cannot make sense of the anti-gravitational properties of his watch which keeps pulling up (actually falling down) from his pocket. The scene is an innuendo at the “inverted reality” of nazi Germany, where the ‘miracle’ of national resurrection was a distorted perception of the national catastrophe. Downfall presents itself to the upside down humanity as a soaring toward the otherworldly.

This raises the question of what has generated such an inversion of reality? Marx contends that human alienation is the byproduct of the division of social labour. Man acts only as an atom in the production of everything: food, culture, state, religion, ideas, etc. Consequently, he cannot recognize himself in the world of his own creation. He projects his creative powers on the gods that become the object of his disempowered petitions. On the other hand, he perceives himself as an object, rather than as a subject of this estranged world.

At that time, Marx could only advance his thesis on a speculative basis. We know better than him. Human nature has formed itself in Pleistocene. We have discovered its early imprints in cave art. Contrary to preconceived assumptions, cave art is not the product of shamans. It was created by people, mostly teenagers, of both sexes, without any religious connotations. It reflects pure curiosity and creative play. (Guthrie, R. Dale. The Nature of Paleolithic Art. The University of Chicago Press, Chicago 2005). It comes from an egalitarian society with no division of labour or gender segregation. The span of time covered by cave art is six time longer that the whole history of civilisation. Prehistory is the real history of mankind. It shaped what we are. The agricultural revolution, with its society based on class division, private property, institutionalized religion and family, was contrary to human nature. We are the alienated adventurers and cave artists of the paleolithic.

Marx transits from anthropology to political economy when it comes to capitalism. The problem with capitalism is, according to him, a process of production which is not subordinated to the real needs of the producer, but to the reproduction of the capital itself. The system has to create the market, the producer, and the need, rather than satisfy the real needs of the real people. The reality distortion consists in the fact that humanity objectifies himself in commodity and its abstract expression, money. The value of objectified humanity is given by the game of the marked, rather than by humanity itself.

The process requires religious faith in the ultimate value of money. “Compare de holy iconography of various religions on the one hand with the banknotes of countries, on the other” (Walter Benjamin. Capitalism as Religion, 1921). ‘In God we trust’ is such a profession of faith. Erich Fromm identifies the religious character of capitalist alienation in the Old Testament denunciation of idols. “The whole concept of alienation found its first expression in Western thought in the Old Testament concept of idolatry… man bows down and worships things… He has become estranged from his own life forces… and is in touch with himself only in the indirect way of submission to life frozen in the idols”. (Erich Fromm. Marx’s Concept of Man, 1961). It is in light of the cultic nature of capitalism that Marx’ gloss over religion as the opium of the people reveals its deeper meaning. His point is rather that of Martin Scorsese’s in The Wolf of Wall Street. “Of all the drugs under God’s blue heaven, there is one that is my absolute favourite,” declares Leonardo DiCaprio’s as Jordan Belfort. The rest of the drugs – and you see all of them in the movie – are only catalysts for the intoxicating effect of money. Erich Fromm defines this psychedelic effect “intense, yet cold excitement built upon inner deadness or, if one would want to put it symbolically, it is ‘burning ice’” (ibid). It is this ‘icy’ character that makes the other drugs necessary.

In the same way, false religion itself is acting as a catalyst, like ammonium in cigarettes, or calcium carbonate in crack. It provides theological legitimacy for the commodified illusions. Take tithing for instance. Behind the anti-materialistic facade of selflessness, tithing reinforces the mystification of money, as God himself needed it. Like paying for sex, paying oneself into a relationship with God is a form of human alienation. The prosperity gospel is itself the ultimate example of bubble economy.

“The imaginary flowers on the chain” the “fantasy or consolation” that make it bearable are no longer the otherworldly ‘fantasy and consolation’ of the Middle Ages. They are now the worldly ‘fantasy and consolation’ of the market. “Capitalism essentially serves to satisfy the same worries, anguish, and disquiet formerly answered by so-called religion” (Benjamin). This is true even when it comes to the otherworldly in our days. They are not relics of medieval faith, as commonly assumed, but rather commodified fantasies produced by religious assembly lines, to satisfy the scientifically surveyed and artificially engineered needs of the religious market. They are another bubble economy.

The implicit affirmation of true religion reveals itself in the the first line of the paragraph containing the ‘opium’ statement. “Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering”. Unlike the ‘the imaginary flowers on the chain’ the palliative ‘fantasy and consolation’ that deadens the awareness of human condition, true religion is tragic. It embraces human suffering and the dilemmas of its age. Marx rejected the emasculated atheism of the Young Hegelians as inferior to the religion of common people because the latter was rooted in real suffering. “In then linking itself to suffering, Marxism made contact with and drew upon religion’s principal source of power, now making it available for its own development.” (Alvin W. Gouldner, The Two Marxisms. New York: Oxford University Press, 1980). The revolution originates in the same depth of human suffering as does the ‘opium of the people’.

The task of revolution is not to destroy religion but to liberate it. “Criticism has plucked the imaginary flowers on the chain not in order that man shall continue to bear that chain without fantasy or consolation, but so that he shall throw off the chain and pluck the living flower.” It is what Max Weber called ”religions of salvation whose central theme is the restoration of human unity through brotherhood”. The living flower is true religion. We will never pluck it unless we first destroy the imaginary flowers and breack the chain.

The theological roulette

The global religious market was made possible by two inventions of Blaise Pascal (1623–1662): the mathematics of probabilities and the redefinition of theology as a strategic game. The latter is known as Pascal’s Wager.

Slave trade insurance was the first global-scale application of probabilities in economics. The reintroduction of slavery in Christianity was not a resurrection of pre-feudal economics. It was rather a crude form of the human commodification which is inherent to all modern production. “Its product is the self-conscious and self-acting commodity…the human commodity” (Karl Marx. Economic-Philosophical Manuscripts, p. 111). Modern evangelism inscribes itself in the same logic, i.g. an evangelist is vouchsafed in proportion to the number of won souls. The soul commodity needs to be insured in its own way. Pascal’s Wager was the first to offer a model of theological risk-assessment.

Pascal knew better than the proponents of Intelligent Design that the probability of a pre-ordered universe was impossible to calculate. “’God is, or He is not’… There is an infinite chaos which separated us. A game is being played at the extremity of this infinite distance where heads or tails will turn up… “. He redefined theology as strategic gambling.

Most criticism of Pascal’s wager has focused on the binarity of coin tossing. Pascal ignores not only the multitudes of gods, but also the number of variables involved in each betting. His own Lettres Provinciale, where Pascal debates a Jesuit priest over the use of Penance, offers the best example. Both contenders agree not only about the existence of the Christian God, but also on the importance of Penance. What they disagree upon is the case-based administration of the Sacrament by the Jesuits. A protestant would probably agree with Pascal is his rejection of casuistry, while differing in Sacramental Theology. To make things even more ambiguous, the Nominalist crisis had already questioned any possible answer regarding the will of God.

Pascal’s wager stands only for the blind bet before the cards are dealt. The real game begins when another human player (like the Jesuit in Lettres Provinciale) makes his call. For what is worth, bluffing has its own place in the game. We might, as well, trade the flipping coin for another gambling machine invented by Pascal: the roulette. The particular god one worships is in most cases a matter of chance posing as destiny, in a fashion similar to a gambler’s supperstion. The similarity does not end here. Just like the other global roulette, the financial marked, the player is brainwashed to trust an expert who directs his bet and pretends to foresee the outcome.

Evangelism becomes another signaling game on the global religious market.

The concept of signaling refers to strategic models where one or more informed agents take some observable actions before one or more uninformed agents make their strategic decisions. This leads to situations where the uninformed agent care about the actions taken by the informed agent not only because the actions aspect payoffs directly, but also because the action taken say something about the type of the player. This in turn creates incentives to select actions to send the right signal about type.

An instructive example of signaling game is offered by fireflies’ light signals. When a firefly receives a light signal, it does not know whether the sender is a mating partner or an alluring predator. The bug has to asses the signal from incomplete information. It has to gamble the reproductive payoff against the risk of being eaten. In order for the game to continue, the probability of finding a sexual partner has to be higher than the probability of being eaten. In other words, signaling partners have to outnumber signaling predators.

A similar game is played on the religious market. The informed agent (preacher, evangelist, theologian) sends a message that allegedly comes from God. The receiver has to make a strategic decision on whether or not to accept the message. He is observing the messenger and listening to him in order to assess the probability of being true. He is acting from incomplete information. What he does not know is that the real information the messenger posses is not about God, but about the game. The messenger knows what to say and how to act to induce the right answer from the receiver. In order for the game to continue, the uninformed agents have to outnumber the informed agents, whether in the pews or even in the pulpit. It is the same as with the firefly.

However, as soon as the receiver understands the rules of the game, the religious roulette stops. No wonder the secret is well guarded.

The Antichrist

Ludwig Wittgenstein defined the meaningless and the inevitability of God-talk in one and the same statement: “The sense of the world must lie outside the world” (Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, 6.41). The sense of life, the world as a whole – in one word – God, is unsayable. “In the world everything is as it tis, and everything happens as it does happen, in it no value exists—and if it did exist, it would have no value” (ibid). On the flip side, every statement of meaning and value, even the most trivial, is ultimately theological. This is even more true with statements and concepts concerning the exercise of power.

I will I will pick two such concepts, one from psychology, the other from international politics, to argue my point. The concept of self-actualisation, was introduced by Kurt Goldstein for the search of realizing one’s full potential. It has been used ever since by various schools of psychology, and made popular by self-help gurus. Another concept is self-determination. The latter has become normative in international relations since WW II. Less well-known is the fact that, whenever we employ these concepts, we operate with Aristotelian/Thomistic theology.

According to the Greek philosopher, actuality (ἐντελέχεια) and potentiality (δύναμις), could never be applied to the same entity. Humans have potential, God is actuality, Actus Purus, unadulterated act. Even more, God is not concerned with us. If he were, he wouldn’t possess the quality of self-determination. That is to say that God’s perfect mind cannot be moved by a thirteen years old girl being raped and stoned in Somalia. Yet human rights activists commenting the atrocity will uphold the universal right to “self-actualisation”, regardless of religion and gender, while acquiescing, in the same breath, that countries where such things happen have a basic right to ‘self-determination”, and should not be imposed alien values. How did we come to reconcile Aristotle’s Absolute Being with the misery and wickedness of humanity?

The paradox originates in the theology of St. Paul. It is the concept of Incarnation that brings together God’s actuality and human potentiality in Christ. Playing with Wittgenstein’s terms, the Cross is both a fact and the totality of facts. The sense of life manifests itself through God’s entering the cycle of birth and death.

It is this theological statement that enabled Aquinas to argue against Aristotle’s contention that God does not mind humanity. “We must say therefore that God knows not only that things are in him, but, by the fact that they are in him, he knows them in their own nature, and all the more perfectly, the more perfectly each one is in him”. His answer can be interpreted in two ways. In one sense, God knows about the girl in Somalia in him. God remains the Unmoved Mover, i.e., he knows but he is not moved by what he knows. God is here the UN inspector, neutralizing atrocity in political cliches and statistics. Yet in another sense, God knows tragedy in its own nature, that is, from the perspective of the cross, which is also the angle of the teen girl. God is, in this case, the revolutionary hero that raises above history and dominates it, in the name, and for the sake of its victims.

The first seeds of the secularisation of Incarnation theology have been planted during the Reformation. Erasmus contented against Luther’s “bondage of will” that God has transferred to humanity his self-determination at Creation. However, it was Luther himself who hit the nail on its head when he defined Christian freedom through the Cross rather than through Creation.
Luther made the individual believer be his/her own pope and the ultimate interpreter of faith. He also substituted secular “calling” to monasticism, and proclaimed the end of the “babylonian captivity” of ecclesiastical clericalism.

The German idealists continued to tent to the blade and the ear until they reached full corn in the work of Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel. With the latter, God dies in Christ to resurrect in humanity. The Supreme Being is immanent in history. God descends from abstract actuality into human potentiality, and returns to concret self-actualisation in humanity, through the process of history. Says Hegel: “The history of the world is none other than the progress of the consciousness of freedom”. Self-actualisation is thus implicit in human potentiality. Self-determination is implicit in the rattling of the chain.

It is worth noting the opposite trend of returning God to Aristotelian transcendence, taking place at the same time in Deism. Deism is the denial of God’s immanence in history. Theologically, it goes down to the denial of the Incarnation. This is also St. John’s definition of the Antichrist ”For many deceivers are entered into the world, who confess not that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh. This is a deceiver and an antichrist.” (2 Jo 1,7). Politically, Deism is a return to Aristotelian polis-democracy, with its substantial division between citizen and slave, man and woman, Greek and barbarian.

However, the darkest side of polis-democracy was not slavery but the homo sacer “who can be killed but not offered as sacrifice”, the exclusion of bare life from the city. In other words, one could not claim any right to live, unless his/her life was qualified through belonging to social order. There was no intrinsic value recognized in humanity as such.

The Cross was God’s declaration of solidarity with homo sacer, the absolute valuation of human life outside society. “Wherefore Jesus also, that he might sanctify the people with his own blood, suffered without the gate. Let us go forth therefore unto him without the camp, bearing his reproach. For here have we no continuing city, but we seek one to come” (Heb 13, 12-14). The Pauline gospel was the denial of the polis.

Nevertheless, it is the “ continuing city” as opposed to the seeking of “one to come” that constitutes the political core of Deism. According to Michael Bakunin, Deism is: “the reconciliation of Revolution with Reaction… the principle of liberty with that of authority, and naturally to the advantage of the latter… the deliberate submission of free reason to the eternal principles of faith”. Bakunin shows how the desistic Absolute Being of J.J. Rousseau provided the moral frame for Robespierre’s reign of terror, and for the modern worship of the state. One could add the American revolution to his examples. It was the Deism of the Founding Fathers that allowed them to reconcile the Declaration of Independence with slavery, and treat the Indians as homo sacer.

Deism defined God as the Great Watchmaker, and the universe as a perfect clock. William Paley was probably the best known advocate of this concept in natural theology. Every living species is in his view a perfectly designed machine. Contending against the lamarckian evolutionism of his time, Paley held the “argument from perfection”, the historical ancestor of the current “irreductible complexity” notion, used by the advocates of Intelligent Design. His argument will be mercilessly demolished by his brightest disciple, Charles Darwin.

The connection between natural theology and political theology in Deism is seen the anecdote about Napoleon’s innuendo to Laplace about the absence of God in his Mécanique Céleste. Laplace’s infamous answer – “I had no need of that hypothesis” – was tamed by his biographers and eulogists to mean that the solar system was a perfect clock that needed not being unwind from time to time by God. Actually, what he had no need of was the clock and the watchmaker hypothesis. He had the nebular hypothesis. He believed that the universe has evolved. And this was a political problem.

The watchmaker hypothesis in natural theology implies perfect design in nature. Transferred to the realm of politics, it implies a natural order which is perfect. The divine right of kings is replaced with the divine right of nature. The rational state is supposed to preserve the natural order and natural rights.

This is, as I already said, a return to the polis, where the rights of the citizen coexisted with what was universally understood as natural inequality. On the other hand, the political genius of Paul consisted not in being free of such prejudices. He was certainly not. He believed in the natural right of master over slave, of husband over wife. He asserted the natural superiority of Jews. Yet he also proclaimed the end of the law, mosaic as well as natural, along with the universal reign of grace.

Th elite of the Roman empire believed in one God. Their God was defined by Stoic philosophers as identical with the Logos, the divine/natural order of the cosmos. It was their ultimate aim to align the world to the Logos. However, the elite knew that philosophy was not for the commons. This is why Rome patronised over a huge pantheon of gods. They despised pagan superstitions, but found them useful for social control. Nonetheless, they abhorred Christianity because it proclaimed the end of their natural/divine order.

Similarly, the elites of Europe and North America knew that Deism was not for the people. They believed at the same time that the old religion was still necessary, and, as Voltaire said, God had to be (re)invented. In the aftermath of the French Revolution, the governments of Europe became strongly supportive of religion. Romanticism was a time of religious revival. God was probably not dead in Europe, but he was on intensive care. The church could not survive without the aid of the state.

Things went differently in America because the Founding Fathers were consistent Deists. They truly believed in the divine/natural order of society, and, like Rome, allowed their pantheon to be controlled by it. What is then this natural order, this perfect clock, initiated by the divine watchmaker and anointed to be his infallible vicar, his redeeming Messiah, and his guiding spirit, in society. It is definitely no longer the sword, or any revealed religion or holy book. IT IS THE FREE MARKET.

America saved religion by inventing the religion marked. It allowed the marked to choose, to eliminate, to invent, to import, and to export its goods-gods. This religious marked has become global.