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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.

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Open sea

Friedrich Nietzsche defined modernity in one short sentence: God is dead. Widely misunderstood as a profession of atheism, what the German philosopher meant was a mere statement of fact that “ belief in the Christian God has become unbelievable”. What makes belief unbelievable?

We should note that what has become unglaubwürdig – unbelievable, is not the Christian God as such, but rather “belief in the Christian God”. Nietzsche is too good a theologian to assume that God needs to be believable. Faith has never depended on reason. It is reason that used to depend on faith. From classical Greece through the Age of Enlightenment, one could not trust human reason without believing in a rational God that makes reason believable.

This relationship was first stated by Plato and reaffirmed, in a different form, at the beginning of modernity, by Descartes. Put shortly, it purports that timeless truth dwells in a timeless mind. God is implied here as an ontological axiom for both.

It is exactly this alleged timelessness of either mind or truth that had become unbelievable when Nietzsche wrote that God was dead. Take for instance Darwin’s comment on Plato:

Plato says in Phaedo that our ‘imaginary ideas’ arise from the preexistence of the soul, and are not derivable from experience—read monkeys for preexistence.

The most severe implication of evolution here is not its rebuttal of Genesis literalism – liberal theology has already done it – but its redefinition of mind as a mere biological adaptation. Moreover, if our “imaginary ideas” are biological, the “real” ones are historical. Transcendental truth is an illusion.

Thus the Gordian Knot of metaphysics was cut, and the ontological argument was rendered obsolete. The God who died was the God of philosophers.

Personal faith is, of course, hardly affected by this, because personal faith does not have to be believable. Therefore: “ the event itself is far too great, too distant, too remote from the multitude’s capacity for comprehension”. What has to be believable is only belief as the foundation of sociopolitical institutions “for example, the whole of our European morality”. It is here that Nietzsche anticipates the chill of the “eclipse of the sun whose like has probably never yet occurred on earth”. Mankind will have to navigate through the night without stars. There will be no more eternal verities and moral absolutes to guide our sociopolitical institutions.

Yet Nietzsche is not in a gloomy mode. He salutes the dead of God as mankind’s ultimate adventure in knowledge. It is because the illusion of eternal truth obfuscates perennial truth – science versus metaphysics, experience versus Platonic contemplation, that th dead of God opens such an unprecedented opportunity:

At long last the horizon appears free to us again, even if it should not be bright; at long last our ships may venture out again, venture out to face any danger; all the daring of the lover of knowledge is permitted again; the sea, our sea, lies open again; perhaps there has never yet been such an “open sea.

The question is if we truly want to navigate these dangerous waters, to inhabit such a meaningless universe, to dare into most fantastic science and heart-stopping growth without God, any god to turn our eyes on? The content of the last two centuries has been that of desperately searching for a new god.