William and Harry’s far back ancestors were the punks and warlords who lorded over the vicinty’s only watering hole, aided by a few plunderers elevated above the herd. (Father Time has saw to them getting uniforms and legitimacy.) The mainstream media’s equally ancient forebears were the weakling creeps that, from fear and syncofancy, sat astride amongst the trophies, telling the chief how astounding were his bloody exploits, and how fragrant were his farts.
Government, like dress, is the badge of lost innocence
That rifle on the wall of the labourer’s cottage or working class flat is the symbol of democracy. It is our job to see that it stays there.
Those who think access to psychoactive drugs is a matter of personal liberty are almost always opposed to the right to own a gun; and those who consider the right to bear arms inalienable are often entirety against the freedom to possess or take drugs. This is a strange state of affairs.
The dichotomy is laid bare nicely in a debate between Will Self – pro-drugs, anti-guns – and Peter Hitchens – anti-drugs, pro-guns. It is worth watching should you find the time.
Along with many leftists, Self believes the government has no legitimacy regulating who takes this or that substance. You are, as a citizen of sane mind, better placed to decide if you should get steamed, high, shitfaced, bombed or cunted, than all the civil servants in Whitehall.
Firearms, however? Good grief no, they’re dangerous, scary, and more than a bit vulgar (i.e. American). Best to leave those weapons in the hands of the State, and only there.
There is a tradition on their Left that’s largely been forgotten. One based upon faith in the citizenry, and contempt of the State. It holds that the people have a right and duty to protect themselves from oppression, namely: overbearing and tyrannical governments. The only surefire way to do that is with weaponary. In its way, the right to bear arms is the best guarantor of all other rights. Bronterre O’Brien, during the early, volatile days of the Chartist movement:
What course then, do we advise? Our advice is that you rigidly obey the law; but at the same time be prepared to make your oppressors likewise obey it. Be upon your guard against spies or madmen, who would urge you to illegal practices, but at the same time bear in mind that you have the same right to arm that your enemies have, and that if you abandon that right your liberties are gone for ever
The best way to motivate elites into doing the right thing, history has taught, has been the majority’s ability to project a threat of violence. This was true in O’Brien’s day, when the working class demanded their rights; and when Orwell was writing – when that same constituent was required to defend those rights in the face of fascism.
Orwell considered the capacity to recognise and accept unpleasant facts a power. If he was right, and he certainly is, Francisco Goya’s work stands as testament to a man who elevated it to the level of a superpower. One doesn’t seek out Goya’s paintings or etchings looking for consolation. Here one finds the brutalities of war, the sadomasochism on which class and feudal relations depend, and the many ways Man can embody impotence.
Goya became an expert in the last of those when, at a relatively young age, he was struck by an illness that left him both blind and deaf. The former was temporary, the latter proved lifelong. This had the effect of turning the artist inward and further away from an idealised view of his country. Out went the beautiful scenes of picnics and salons, and in came the bull fighting, highwaymen and lunatic asylums in all their gory authenticity. See The Death of the Picador:
Ordinarily such scenes would depict a moment of triumph: man demonstrating his superiority over beast. A predictable assemble, with the tacit message, “this is the natural order of things”. But here is the bull, outnumbered and defiant, impaling the performer in a – although can it ever be contrary? – particularly undignified way. His horse is crushed beneath. In doing this, Goya shows Spaniards what they really wanted to see. (And if the tabloids are to be taken at face value, what they still do.) An articulate observer of this “sport” will tell you that, besides cherished tradition, it is the grace and pageantry that keep them coming back. But Goya knew that pueblo wanted gore, and lots of it.
There’s a question over whether anyone wanted to see inside a madhouse, however. This is where Spain dumped the mentally disturbed and its non-aristocratic eccentrics, and where the mantra “out of sight, out of mind” was cruelly followed. No one received care worthy of the name, and, with a architectural design George Carlin would be proud of, these prisons were open, chaotic. The resulting paintings by Goya convey a terrible atmosphere. If one were to take a peek into the cave of Michaelangelo’s The Last Judgement, I imagine one would see something like this:
It’s debatable whether or not he was a secret republican (many have taken his royal portraits as quite enough evidence, ignoring the fact he made the very best out of some very ugly sitters), but this scene would certainly suggest a sympathy. There is a man with a crown fashioned from feathers holding his hand out to adoring “courtiers”. Another wears a headdress made from cards, and a third sports a DIY mitre. This is the royal court depicted in one of the few ways possible. It takes skill and bravery to dupe most contemporaries, while leaving a clear subversive message for posterity. He saw behind the enchanted glass propped up to simultaneously dazzle and terrify, and found asses instead of lions.
He was a man of the Enlightenment, but unlike many of that tendency he never romantised “the people”. It is a failing of some liberals (and even more socialists) to assume that, if only the shackles were to be undone, most of population would rationally, and dutifully, get behind them. No, to Goya the reactionary inclinations of the hoi polloi were only too clear. It was they who, when the horrid Fernando VII consolidated his power – by employing secret police that hunted liberals like hogs – went to the streets chanting, “long live our chains, long live oppression; long live King Fernando, death to the Nation!”
(And it was the great mass that had urged along the monarch’s crushing of the 1812 Constitution, along with its liberating potential. This document was drawn up by the exiled Spanish government in Cádiz in response to Napoleon’s invasion. It promised the people a country worth fighting for: one with a free press, universal male suffrage, land reform, and checks on the monarchy. At one time – as the Peninsula War raged – it looked as if Spain would end up with either this indigenous liberalism born from war, or an enlightened absolutism imposed by France. Tragically, but in keeping with this troubled land, it got Fernando.)
There is a sense of disbelief, if not disgust, toward his victims of social inequity. In this image from the Caprichos, two proletarians lumber almost prostrate under the weight of asses, representative of the aristocracy. Their looks are one of complacency.
Here is Goya facing the unpleasant fact of power: in order for one to oppress, the other must choose to submit. Granted, this is the perspective of the artist: distant, if not disinterested. One with more sympathy – for either side of the dynamic – will be eager to point to Marxist or Humean theories of indoctrination, and the threats of violence contained, either latently or explicitly, within the dictates of tyrants. It’s not that Goya is unaware of these factors, but he isn’t so willing to absolve those who bend the knee. What bothered him, a man so use to questioning his surroundings, was the self-enforced ignorance of “the many,” that in fact makes a despot’s life so easy. The majority, by simply refusing to ask why, are more than complicit in their structural misery. Minds untutored in political philosophy are better placed to see this than their opposite. This is what Blake called “mind-forged manacles”.
This insight may seem blunted by the fact it comes from a painter of the court, though it shouldn’t. Goya maintained a fierce independence that got him in trouble with both the Inquisition and Fernando. And, besides, we can’t be certain that self-loathing wasn’t part of the impetus behind The Caprichos.
Another print, a favourite of Christopher Hitchens, shows a peasant groaning beneath the bulk of an overweight friar. The caption reads, “Will you never learn what you are carrying on your back?” This is, in part, one of Goya’s many shots at the clergy. A class of men he considered parasitic, stupid and dangerous.
Ever since the Moors were forced out, a particularly reactionary strain of Catholism was enforced on the Iberian peninsula. The climate of fear that began with the targeting of Muslims and Jews and their descendants, came to infect every corner of society: speak a foreign tongue? Suspect. In love a non-Catholic? Dangerous. A woman with aspirations above the convents or child rearing? Abhorrent. Known to read the latest treaties out of France? Traitor. And all knew the rack and burning poles awaited transgressors.
Though the Inquisition’s most tyrannical years had passed by Goya’s day, it maintained an ominous and persistent presence. For example, he was made to answer for The Naked Maja – the first Western painting to include female genital hair, according to biographer Robert Hughes – as well as The Caprichos.
During his early career he found himself at the whims of men of the cloth – a rare group with the capital to commission such works, and the bane of hundreds of artists before Goya and since. In a letter to a friend, he refers to his difficulties with them,
If you don’t watch out and even if you do, [these insects] will tear away your flesh and your hair out as well; not only do they scratch you and look for pretexts for quarrelling, but they bite, spit, stick you, and run you through; they often become food for other and worse ones…
As is classic of one who has made a deadly foe, Goya can’t even bring himself to consider his adversaries human. This colourful language prefigures later depictions of the clergy.
Hughes has suggested that even with this animus, Goya remained some sort of believer in the supernatural. But his pessimism runs so deep, and his contempt for religion’s representatives so great, that it’s hard to see him as anything but an atheist.
At his most pointed, he thought religion stupified the mind. The sleep of Reason brings forth monsters. Other times – as with the lore surrounding witches – he had an almost anthropological interest in the fantasies on which people build lives around. But this interest remained at a safe distance. See Plate 69 of Disasters of War, his second major series of etchings: A corpse faces away from the viewer holding a pen which, in rigamortise, hovers over a sheet of paper. It reads: Nada. Like that other great atheist David Hume, the everyday dreads of old age weren’t enough to bring about a late conversion. Goya remained steadfast, and kept the God-botherers from his bedside.
As well as that, not only does Christian imagery become absent early in his private work, but the motifs associated with such images end up being employed for notably secular purposes. Justice and reason, those cornerstones of the Enlightenment, look almost holy in Goya’s pen (see Lux et tenebris and Sol de justicia). While that symbol of revolution, and Spain’s wartime adversary, Lady Liberty, strikes a saintly pose in Allegory of the Constitution of 1812. (Old man Time has less hassle bringing her forth on canvas than “he” had in actual fact.)
This is a rare moment of optimism in Goya’s collection, which makes the knowledge that the 1812 Constitution was scrapped – and by a Spanish administration – so crushing. It’s hard not to think that, however courageous the resistance was – and Goya honored the everyday heroes of the struggle – a French victory would’ve been preferable to the outcome Spain was dealt. (The conflict has an odd parallel with the 2003 Iraq War: both began with foreigners citing enlightened progress as their casus belli, and both, in their own way, brought awful reaction.)
Although he clearly had a “side” during the war, he is surprisingly evenhanded in his coverage (a journalistic term that seems apt). The French are shown committing terrible acts of mutilation and savagery, but so are Spanish patriots. They are shocking.
At another time Goya said that he had hoped to document universal human failings. Looking at these prints today one’s mind is taken immediately to Syria in 2017, which is a strange compliment to the “most Spanish of artists”. One hopes there is enough left of that country in the near future so that a worthy heir might emerge.
I cannot praise a fugitive and cloistered virtue unexercised and unbreathed, that never sallies out and sees her adversary, but slinks out of the race, where that immortal garland is to be run for, not without dust and heat. Assuredly we bring not innocence into the world; we bring impurity much rather; that which purifies us is trial, and trial is by that which is contrary.
Those who find the idea of safe spaces appealing ought to consider Milton’s electrifying prose. There is nothing inherently wrong (nor, for that matter, anything praiseworthy) with wanting to taking a holiday from the race that is the free marketplace of ideas. But there is something quite wrong with imposing this hiatus – for one hopes it is impossible to be sheltered from it totally – upon others: which is exactly what safe spaces on university campuses do.
It is at places of learning that the race ought to be at its fiercest and most competitive. For the relationship between thought and expression is, as Orwell knew, a dialectical one. The imposition on one silences the other.
(As nice as that comes together, it’s not at all true. Those with the least energetic minds are often all too eager to express what they’ve got.)
For neither Man nor Angel can discern/ Hypocrisie, the only evil that walks/ Invisible
While our current health secretory, and Freudian slip triggerer, Jeremy Hunt was President of the Oxford Conservatives, terrorist affiliate Adolfo Calero was wined and dined by the society. Calero provided financial and political support to the Contras, that Nicaraguan counter-revolutionary force known for, among many such outrages, ethnic cleansing, rape campaigns and torture. But this didn’t matter, for the great bulk of Oxford University Tory contingent (for there was dissent), he was an honoured guest.
It must take some gall to accuse Jeremy Corbyn of sympathising with terrorists, knowing that such colourful characters as Calero can claim to once sharing a bill. But this is, as recent events have only confirmed, what the Tories are: brazen Terrorist Sympathisers.
A little has been made of how the Conservative Party’s new partner, the DUP, has been associated with armed thugs.As George Dangerfield has shown, the Tories were aligned with Orange terror from the beginning. The DUP’s forebears were, surprisingly, not as pro-Union as all that. They disliked London, resented oversight from the old country (note how Churchill hounded away from a “northern” podium). However they hated Irish independence and republicanism and Catholics more, and that they shared with the Tories. And so, with astonishing cynicism, the Conservatives took the opportunity to undermine – the tepid, but nonetheless real – Liberal progress toward “home rule” or independence. Aligning themselves with, and lending legitimacy to, militant Protestantism (it was only with this Blue-Orange alliance that talk of separating the Six Counties came about). This went from the out and out shows of solidarity in the form of the Black and Tans, to the covert Thatcherite support for rightist paramilitaries during the Troubles.
It was with Thatcher that the Conservatives wore their terroristic sympathies with pride. Suharto (“we are best of friends”), Pinochet (who she described as a champion of democracy), South Africa’s government (by undermining the boycott campaign) and Saddam were all given Downing Street’s approval, and more importantly: access to the world’s “best” manufacturers, those based in the UK.
The Iron Lady fully supported terrorists which had entire state apparatuses behind them. Suhurto, an oddly overlooked monster of the 20th century, used British-made arms – and naval escort – to carry out a murder campaign that brings to mind recent events in the Philippines, though immeasurably worse. Up to a million people were murdered by the Indonesian secret police and army (the Killing Fields is a must watch for those interested in finding out more). East Timor, as well as “internal suppression”, was practically wiped off the map in a genocidal campaign that implicates Australia and the US too.
In comparison, Jeremy Corbyn declared that, for Irish peace talks to be successful, the political arm of the Irish Republican Army had to play a part. If you consider that shocking, then prepare yourself: despite outward fulminations, Thatcher’s government were doing just that, carrying out secret talks with the IRA. If advocacy equals sympathy and damnation, then what’s this?
Today the Saudis use British arms to lay waste to Yemen’s infrastructure and citizenry. Hospitals are being rocketed, aid withheld, and NGOs and the UN are trying to alleviate the effects of a terrible – but entirely predictable – famine. This is what happens when the world’s most sophisticated weaponry is used against one of its poorest nations. Theresa May holds the receipts.
Labour and Corbyn supporters as “terrorist sympathisers” is one of the Conservatives’ most returned to talking points (often when the formers suggest there might be a relation between our foreign policy and how we’re perceived globally). The riposte ought to go, “I refuse to be lectured to by people like you”.
Vicarious redemption, as all observers of Christianity know, will set dangerous precedents. The President of the Phillipines, Mr Duterte, has said, following calling martial law told police and military forces,
If you go down, I go down. But for this martial law and the consequences of martial law and the ramifications of martial law, I and I alone would be responsible, just do your job I will take care of the rest
He went on to “joke” that, if any of his goons go on to rape three women, “it’s on him”. Contrary to what you might think, I am cautious about pulling the Hitler Card, the Internet’s most common (and tiresome) reflex. Duterte is not the raving ideologue the other was, and neither is he quite so dangerous (if only because the Phillipines shares little of what made Germany so powerful). But he is the same in one striking, and frightening, way. In what psychologists call “agentic shift”, he offers the psychopaths and brutes of society a moral free pass: unleash your id and expect no repercussions. Responsibility lies elsewhere, in the lofty heights of state power.
Stanley Milgram set out to understand, in a series of fascinating experiments, how the “ordinary” men and women of the Nazi murder machine were able to do what they did. Using American volunteers – putting to quiet any jingoistic nonsense about the uniqueness of the German psyche – he found that a overwhelming majority would, as far as they knew, execute a stranger by electronic shock if an authority figure gave them the okay. (The “victims” were of course actors, but participants genuinely believed they fatally zapping a fellow creature for incorrectly answering general knowledge questions.) A man in a tie and white lab coat – a “social better” – with a commanding voice and reassuring platitudes, was all it took to turn Joe Everyman into a killer.
Duterte’s “law and order” campaign is so dangerous because, like the terrors of the recent past, it exploits two key areas of human failing: the urge to offload responsibility, and the propensity to mistake status for greatness.
The established ideology is on its way out*. Going with it, for citizens of the United Kingdom (a compromise that may also be witnessing its twilight), is not just EU membership and long-inflated global status, but the very political foundation on which we depended. The old antithesis of Left and Right, socialism and Toryism, worker and capitalist, somehow survived 1989 and Blair, but not, it seems, Brexit.
The new political division that will shape this Banana Monarchy is, at present, lob-sided. The traditional Right wasted no time in adjusting. As the “Left” faltered (we will likely never completely shed ourselves of the shorthand gained from the French Revolution), the forces of reaction, authoritarianism and tribalism built up what is invariably described as alt-, new-, or populist-right. And who constitutes the bulk of this movement? The group progressives have often taken for granted: the poor. For working class supporters of the Leave EU campaign (as too, Le Pen and Trump), socio-economic loyalties are secondary to those of race and nation, if considered at all.
This urge to, as Kipling termed it, “think with the blood” is, for roughly 52% of the population, a strong one. But traditions matter, especially in a nation that holds them in place of rights. None more so than liberty.
Refreshing the Tree
I am aware of the pitfalls involved in defining national “traits”. I cannot in all honesty stand by the claim, inspired by Oscar Wilde, that liberty is to the English what scepticism is to the Jews. After all, a Tory government recently passed the horribly draconian, invasive “Snooper’s Charter”. And this, as if to make the literal-minded cringe, to the voiced dismay of the highest court of that supposedly authoritarian institution, the European Union (and their manifesto promises more, more, more!). Too, the so-called Jewish State has been spewing up governments which have been taking the decidedly uncritical, self-damning policy of annexing the West Bank1.
But the country that jailed Richard Carlile and William Cobbett for the crime of voicing unpleasant facts, and Milton for republican polemic, also provided a safe haven and a stage for Pax Britannia’s greatest critics – from Karl Marx and Ernest Jones to Gandhi – and that, without a Bill of Rights.
It was the Whigs, faced with radicals who would force reform violently if need be, that manned the green trenches against the ferocious assaults to free expression directed from Tory Front Benches. They kept up this up, to varying degrees, throughout the post-Napoleon I era, up until the transition to the Liberal Party. During the Victorian era – or, better yet, the age of empire (Eric Hobsbawm’s descriptive has the benefit of being both republican and expository) – it became capital L Liberals which came to fly the flag for free-trade, free-speech and, in the form of unions, free-association. Sometimes these causes had their roots in Bentham utilitarian thinking; but, more often than not, an American-like suspicion of government overreach.
In the excellent Strange Death of Liberal England, George Dangerfield charts how this Liberalism eventually fell victim to the chain reaction of Tory, Women’s, and Worker’s rebellion. The Liberal Party proved too moderate and, at base too conciliatory, to survive the ruptures of the modern age, much like the hereditary principle it had in part neutered2. He wrote,
When codes, when religions, when ideas cease to move forward, it is always in some shining illusion that an alarmed humanity attempts to take refuge
The shining illusions in the early twentieth century were grand ideologies which promised humanity a New Man. Those gleaming trapdoors, fascism and Stalinism. Now, aggressive nationalism is the illusion competing for the imaginations of little men everywhere. (In Britain that’s all we have – what is called “the Opposition” has swayed between ignoring the new political reality, and chasing working class jingoisms. Corbyn’s Labour Party has managed to lose everything, including, somehow, the moral high ground.)
The Importance of Being Liberal
The liberalism required to counter the alt-right will bear some similarity to the tradition Dangerfield chronicled the death of. Though to best represent contemporary progressives, anti-authoriatrians and internationalists – and it must – this new liberalism must learn to be more muscular and self-aware (read: critical) than what went before. It could also benefit from some pointers offered by Bertrand Russell. It’s worth quoting him at length:
- Do not feel absolutely certain of anything.
- Do not think it worth while to proceed by concealing evidence, for the evidence is sure to come to light.
- Never try to discourage thinking for you are sure to succeed.
- When you meet with opposition, even if it should be from your husband or your children, endeavor to overcome it by argument and not by authority, for a victory dependent upon authority is unreal and illusory.
- Have no respect for the authority of others, for there are always contrary authorities to be found.
- Do not use power to suppress opinions you think pernicious, for if you do the opinions will suppress you.
- Do not fear to be eccentric in opinion, for every opinion now accepted was once eccentric.
- Find more pleasure in intelligent dissent than in passive agreement, for, if you value intelligence as you should, the former implies a deeper agreement than the latter.
- Be scrupulously truthful, even if the truth is inconvenient, for it is more inconvenient when you try to conceal it.
- Do not feel envious of the happiness of those who live in a fool’s paradise, for only a fool will think that it is happiness.
The liberal order Russell envisaged bears considerable similarity to Polanyi’s republic of Science. That self-regulating and ever-expanding community – both in number and purview – that sets out to solve the puzzles of physics, chemistry and biology. In these fields authority isn’t inherited, and it isn’t derived from being the oldest in the room. It’s gained by being proven right and right again – and even then, as the best science educators will tell you, it’s to be scrutinised.
Admittedly, there would be difficulties transplanting the science republic framework to politics. The “science community” has proven to be remarkably egalitarian and dynamic, while most of the planet lives under despots with special rooms with tongs and electrodes reserved for those citizens feeling particularly sceptical.
(But what are liberals but triers: they try to be vegan, they try to be responsible consumers, they try to be good people – and, as fellow dinner guests will attest, they at least succeed in trying patience.)
Implicit in Russell’s list is the suggestion that “good” liberalism is more of a disposition than an ideology, and indeed that’s how it should be read (Goethe made a similar suggestion before). Liberal policies – freedom of speech and of movement, the right to privacy and debate, etc. – can exist in a variety of economic and political models.
It, as a tradition, must form the bedrock of a citizen’s outlook. Progressives take note: You only have to consider its nationalistic iterations to realise what humbug socialism would be without liberty.
Conor Cruise O’Brien noted the occasion, following a biting accusation by an African leader, he had the realisation that he was a liberal and not a socialist. This was a serious charge: at the advent of the postcolonial era, Western liberals had proven themselves to be false friends at best, and not much different from their conservative adversaries on the important questions of self-determination and justice.
He was in the Congo where the new government was attempting socialist reform. The odds were stacked against them – as it was for the great swath of post-colonised societies – and to achieve success certain liberties were being taken in the courts, and press freedom had been curtailed. The ends were noble and promised great things, but, nevertheless, O’Brien felt an instinctual unpleasantness toward the means,
Whatever I might argue, I was more profoundly attached to liberal concepts of freedom – freedom of speech and of the press, academic freedom, independent judgement and independent judges – than I was to the idea of a disciplined party mobilising all the forces of society for the creation of a social order guaranteeing more real freedom for all instead of just the few. The revolutionary idea both impressed me and struck me as more immediately relevant for most of humanity than were liberal concepts. But it was the liberal concepts and their long-term importance… that held my allegiance
He goes on to draw an important distinction between truth and utility in politics. There are those for whom the former would, ideally, be the means as well as ends. For them objectivity rests outside of politics, and stands as a guide. For those which seek utility, what’s “best” is what best leads to some perfect end. Trotskyists, neo-conservatives and fascists will consider the objective an obstacle if it is percieved to halt or defer that end.
In this “post-truth” age, it is of vital of importance that the “new” Left (or whatever we will come to call the organised opposition to the alt-right) should regain the highground, and declare truth’s primacy over utility. The signals aren’t good: “progressives” were only too eager to jump into bed with the Central Intelligence Agency simply because it appeared to be working contra Trump. (It hadn’t mattered they provided no proof of his wrongdoing, and that all avaliable evidence suggests that shady Agency is no friend of progress.)
But it is only with the penetrating spotlight of Truth that we’ll be able to show those shining illusions for what they really are: the fossilized turds of monsters that have had their day.
*This ideology is often described as the “liberal” or “metropolitan” elite or establishment. This is a misnomer. There is very little that was liberal – classically at least – about the Thatcherite consensus.
1 How tragic that, just when the European Christians laid down the torch of imperialism, the Jews went to pick it up.
2 Resulting from Liberal MP’s ultimately successful battle to limit the powers of the House of Lords. Before then, the Lords – born, seldom earned – had veto power over Bills brought by the Commons.
It has been argued by rationalists that the age of religion has a definite lifespan. Comte (1830) outlined threestages of intellectual development, it progressed from: the theological, the early religious stage; towards the metaphysical, where philosophical thought reins supreme; and finally the “positive” age. As better explanations for the Universe’s phenomena become known, ideas from the old paradigm are, Comte argued, discarded. Our final stage – the positive age – is defined by a respect for scientific inquiry, questioning and rigorously-tested theories. Religious belief, the antithesis of this (being its ignorant ancient relative) could not surely hope to compete for minds in a period where a logical framework of understanding has been provided by the likes of Newton, Galileo and Darwin. It sounds reasonable, but how would this deterministic thinker reconcile this theory with the recent rise of religious fundamentalism globally? An ideology opposed to secularism and described by Nagata as: “a set of irreducible beliefs or a theology that forestalls further questions” (2001: 481).
With an emphasis on Pentecostal Christian movements, I will assess to what extent religion, a supposed relic of a by-gone age, still maintains a grip on all of us – namely, through politics. I will use ethnographic examples from Brazil, Africa and the United States to argue we can not ignore religion’s continuing ability to shape the political landscape. It is also important to not dismiss Pentecostalism as a shadow from the past, but rather a political movement with modern origins.
Going Back to Basics – The Modern Day Rejection of Secularism
In fact, it is in planet Earth’s beacon of Enlightenment-thinking that our conception of Pentecostalism – “the mother of all fundamentalisms” (p. 482) – was developed. Nagata has charted the rise of the “post-millennials” – from its origins as an exclusive fringe group in the 1870s to the major political force it is today. Opposing Van Vuchy Tijssen (1995: 16) who has argued that Pentecostal Christianity simply emerged to fill an “ideological gap” in mid-nineteenth century America – and, in the process suggesting people just need something, anything, to believe in – she has focused the “revivalist” nature of the movement. Distrustful of increasingly liberalisation and feeling alienated by the changing ethnic make-up of the country, large numbers of white Protestants were encouraged to reminisce about an imagined Golden Age, when the Bible was taken literally and morals were absolute. When everybody knew their place.
Brazil has also seen a rejection of cultural liberalism. Birman (2006) has noted how, like much of South America, Brazil has had an unconventional relationship with Christianity. Catholicism, as practised by the 16th Portuguese, was by-and-large incompatible with polytheistic indigenous belief.When the new white elite settled however, they did not work to exterminate the natives like in North America, they instead set about to convert them. A great deal of the Jesuits which took up thistask did something unexpected: they tailored the word of God to make it more palatable (Lippy et al1992). Texts were arduously translated into native tongues and religious scenes were illustrated in native styles (Bakewell: 259). The black population was also brought into the Catholic fold, its formwas again “adapted” by those with long-standing traditions – in this case those brought from Africa in slave ships (The Invention of Brazil 2014). This was done with the hope that all would come to accept the religious and political order imported from Europe.
Birman has argued that the Catholic Church during this early period frequently “turned a blind eye” to doctrinally unacceptable practices in order to not threaten hegemony they had built. Because of such concessions, if you would call them that, Brazil’s strain of Catholicism relied on an atmosphere
of shared identity. Regardless of how one practised it, all Brazilians could proudly declare “we are aCatholic nation”. And, as was the clergymen’s hope, people accepted the Catholic Church’s authority on the major political quandaries: have tolerance for your countrymen but do not question the social hierarchy (p. 55).
Paying the Way to Christ – Capital and New Ideas
This inclusive albeit hegemonic Catholicism seemed to be under attack with the emergence of the United Church of the Kingdom of God. A populist movement similar to the post-millennials, UCKG gathered a swift following among the politically disillusioned (UCKG – Who We Are). From the start it denounced the climate of tolerance, liberalism and the “idolatry” of Brazil’s Roman Catholicism. (It went so far as declaring a sickly-sounding “holy war” on Afro-Brazilian cults (Birman: 55).) It instead asked the poor to give “prosperity theology” a chance. In stark contrast to the socialistic liberation theology, that other famous radical religious movement with modern “Latin” American origins, prosperity theology puts emphasis on the individual and the need to better oneself materially. It put the emphasis on “you”, not society and certainly not the Church of old (Cuadros 2013).
It has been argued that the Roman Catholic Church needs the poor to stay poor because without them it would have no following (Hitchens 2003). Taking this into consideration, we may welcome a change of direction which sees Christianity put an emphasis on social mobility through Pentecostalism, particularly in the “Global South”. The problem comes with how UCKG pastors recommend people should become prosperous. In order to dole out spiritual favours and success – “instant wealth and health” as Kramer has called it (2005: 95) – the church requires monetary donations from its congregation. These donations have helped launch political careers, all with a very specific right-wing agenda and an overtly religious message. A leading figure of the church Edir Macedo – who has been calculated at being worth $1.2 billion by Bloomberg and involves himself in politics – has drawn a direct link between the pursuit of money and Christian faith claiming that the USA’s success as a country comes from the “In God We Trust” motto on all of their dollar bills. A frequent reminder that all one owns has been granted by supernatural forces. Macedo has preached that it is the job of Brazilians to emulate this (Cuadros).
UCKG is able to prey on the most vulnerable by claiming to have a celestial open hand and the deep pockets of Heaven on their side. The Brazilian government has taken issue with many of the church’s practises, successfully charging members with embezzlement (Phillips 2011). However, UCKG seems to thrive regardless – or perhaps because – of being at odds with the establishment.
Jesus He Knows Me – God, TV Personality
Media – in the form of television, radio and stadium events – is a vital tool: maintaining public opinion and forwarding the political ambitions of UCKG’s leadership. It is important to stress how UCKG’s message is not limited to the pulpit, anyone with a radio or television can potentially hear their message. In a society where stories of violence, kidnappings and a general sense of crisis pervade the news, there is fertile ground for a Pentecostal church broadcasting 24 hours a day to portray itself as a safe haven in a terrible, uncertain world. The traditional Catholic Church, not nearly as media-savvy, has seen its flock disperse to become “share holders” (Birman: 56) in the Pentecostal movement. The United Church of the Kingdom of God shows itself to be an effective mouth-piece of consumer capitalism, especially among the economically down-trodden.
Meyer (2004) has documented a similar trend of celebrity preachers-turned-political voices in Africa. He has argued that the old ideas of of modest African prophets – with a cross in hand, simple dress and weary feet – are out-dated. Today’s preachers behave like super stars and have cult
followings. Mercedes Benz’, private jets, mega-churches – and most importantly – dedicated television channels are just some of the armaments in the modern holy man’s arsenal (p. 448). Meyer has suggested that globalisation has facilitated the growth of these churches and their message. Often tapping into the individualistic jargon surrounding political and economic liberalisation of countries like Cameron (p. 453), Pentecostalism – also with an emphasis on wealth,extroversion and showiness – has been able to grow and grow. Another similarity with Brazil can befound in the way the media networks of the “Pentecostal-Charismatic Churches” of Africa implore all, but particularly the youth, to “break away” from the current status-quo and help forge a new Christian order. This explicit rejection of pluralism puts it at direct odds with the region’s other religions – particularly Islam – not just secularism (p. 465).
The Pentecostal adoption of television began in the USA. The way the mainstream media works, with its frequent witch-hunts, couples it nicely with Pentecostal Christianity (Nagata: 483). Both systems crave easy explanations, heroes and demons, and are at their best when focusing on the negative. The common enemy of recent times is Islam (p. 486). And, even if there is an constitutional separation of Church and State, we have, at times, found them agreeing on a surprising number of issues: abortion, stem cell research, and promotion of Christian doctrine in schools. Pat Robinson, an worringly popular evangelist talk show host, has promoted presidential candidates employing Biblical language:
“God’s blessing is on him [George W. Bush]. It’s the blessing of heaven on the emperor.” (in Marina.)
As we can see, the intellectual evolutionist perspective put forward by Comte is flawed. As demonstrated by Birman, Nagata and Meyer, contemporary secular politics are not immune to becoming tainted by religious discourse. This can not be explained as a post-modern absence of ideology: in the USA and to a degree in Brazil there has long existed a mainstream ideology – a secular and increasingly tolerant one – and modern converts to Pentecostalism have openly rejected it. We have similar trends throughout the world: parts of the world dominated by Islam have seen secular social democratic governments fall and be replaced by nightmarish, absolutist theocratic regimes (compare Iran of the 1950s with today).
Their sophisticated media apparatus has garnered the fundamentalists millions of followers, and our political institutions will be forced to consider, and possibly to cater to, them. That’s unless the forces of liberalism and secularism are able to coalesce and fight back. There are certain things these progressives hold dear (if not quite sacred) – freedom of speech, pluralism and rationalism – and they must make clear that they won’t be infringed without a fight.
When it comes to matters of Church and State, there’s required a continuous and confident chorus, it should go: Build up that wall! Build up that wall!
Throughout history there are moments of great importance. Events which shake the world and change it forever. This is were we come in. Each of us will choose one event per century, starting with the 18th, and explore their significance. Why the 18th? Cause Paddy doesn’t know shit about what happened prior to the French Revolution, nor is he interested.
But in all seriousness, the 18th century is the golden age of Enlightenment – a wonderful and turbulent time – and there’s plenty to talk about.
There is a rule to the discussion we are about to undertake: We will chose singular events. So bids like the “French Revolution” or the “First World War” do not count, since they are more a series of events. Any event within them is fair play, though.
So, without further ado.
The 18th century
Pole – The invention of the steam engine
Okay, this is where I cheat a little. It is hard to pinpoint the exact moment for the invention of a steam engine. A task made even more difficult when we take into consideration the invention of a primitive steam turbine by Hero of Alexandria in the 1st century A.D. However, it is accepted that the first stream powered machine was used to pump water out of mines in 1698. But the first proper steam engine was designed by 1705. This new tool truly kicked off an age of rapid industrialization and urbanization. Shaking up the social and political order like no other invention before it. This moment marks the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. Even though it has its roots in the 17th century.
Paddy – The American Declaration of Independence
The American Declaration of Independence had the immediate, simultaneous effect of damning one continent and freeing another. That is not to say it was, as one might expect, the New World getting one over on the Old, quite the reverse. The invention of those United States, born more from ink than blood, meant the death of America.
The British authorities, for all their faults, prevented European colonists from encroaching too far into the plethora of Native American nations that were splashed across Turtle Island. But it is a result of great “American” heroes like Washington that we talk of upper New York state rather than the Iroquois Nation (although, technically, the British still recognise such a nation’s existence), and because of Jackson we have South Carolina instead of Cherokeeland and Mississippi rather than Choctawia (just imagine all the bother we could’ve saved if such states remained copper-skinned?). And it is only with the disappearance of such places – and people – that the USA stands as our single world power.
All that said, it wasn’t all bad. As I alluded to and will expand upon, the US liberated a people in 1776, and that’s nothing to sniff at. The the destitute of Europe in their bedraggled and diseased millions at that point had a new hope, a new home.
Pole – Yes, the formation of the US is a big one, but I think there is a more important document associated with it: the Constitution. Also, back then the US did not have the same impact on the rest of the world as it had following the Second World War.
The steam engine however, did not just change the system – it lead to the formation of a new one. The newly powered factories and railways caused the emergence of a new elite. An elite whose position was not based on aristocratic titles and chronicled bloodlines proving that one’s great, great, great, great grandmother was fucked by royalty. They gained their position because of capital.
The middle class rose, giving birth to the class system we are familiar with today. This trend crossed national borders: it was not confined to England, where the first steam engine was built. It offered us an unprecedented step away from feudalism, into the industrial society of today. It wasn’t the only one by any means, but there were none of such importance preceding it.
Paddy: You credit the steam engine with a lot. Not only did it crush the gentry, it apparently uplifted that squatty and industrious class – the bourgeoisie – to take its place.
The steam engine had a negligible impact on the 18th century. It could be argued that it was only after that epoch had had its day and when the engine had been transplanted to the New World that it received the conditions – and scope – it required to bring about some of what you credit it with.
Yes, in the great expanse of the Great Plains and in America’s deserts and mountain regions, the steam engine did indeed usher in its own kind of revolution, in land acquisition, transportation and communication. But that was a different time. And of course, it was dependent entirely on the nation we call the United States – a joining of words Thomas Paine, that moral and popular force behind the Declaration, gave us.
The tempered radicalism of the American Revolution opened the way for a system where Law is sovereign – a considerable change to the old British modus operandi where a king (or queen) stood atop and somewhat apart, dictating to all. It is in such a society based on law that science and commerce thrives, while moribund despotisms fester. Recall how it is the congenial air of America that Europe’s greatest innovators have found, and find still, liberation (and those all important government grants). From Paine himself, with his modest bridge building, to Joseph Priestley (chased out Tory mobs) and Alexander Graham Bell, Nikola Tesla, as well as a good number of thosr scientists which gave physics its relativist and quantum transformations.
(There’s also the other side to all this: without the “removal”/genocide of the American Indians, and the subsequent slave system that was installed, the Industrial Revolution would’ve lacked the enormous quantity of cotton on which it depended. While doing this it also functioned as the world’s most pluralistic society, and one of its most literate. The States are, as you have said, the land of contradiction.)
The Industrial Revolution didn’t have a single cause as you seem to suggest. There were a variety of “sparks”, and many of those, I hope you can see, occurred because the United States existed. Without the Declaration we wouldn’t have had which, and, to your first point, nor the Constitution.
Pole: “U.S.A.! U.S.A! U.S.A.!” is what I’m getting from your argument. Yes yes, America is great. However, you yourself admitted that it was thanks to the steam engine that Washington’s folk were able to built up their economy and expand westward. Without the rail system and steam powered modes of transportation the Wild West would be just that: Wild. So it was not the engine that became great because of the States.
Also, you’re talking about the 19th century America, which over that era has become a major player on the international and global arena. 18th century States were still a toddler as far as nations go. The reason the revolution succeeded and the States were able hold on to its independence afterwards is because the European powers had bigger problems than an upstart nation. The glory days of the Spanish Empire were gone. The French were having their own crisis with the bourgeoisie (not to mention that without aid from them the colonists were likely to loose). And the British were far more interested in India and China at the time.
I believe thinking that the Industrial Revolution wouldn’t have happened if the United States didn’t exist is wrong. The Revolution had its start in Europe, Britain and the Netherlands to be more specific. Those countries were becoming less reliant on the peasant economy based on agriculture which was the foundation of the feudal system. The rising of their textile industry is where the industrialisation begun. I admit that the US played a major role in the later development, when the Industrial revolution was in full swing. But most of the innovations done there had their roots in Europe. Electricity was discovered by good old Benny Franklin, but it was the work of Micheal Faraday (an Englishman) that led us to the creation of the electric motor, light bulb and so on. Henry Ford borrowed the assembly line from the Brits and adopted it for his car manufacturing. Which would also be impossible without the steam engine. As far cotton production goes, do you really believe that the existence of the States would have had such a great impact? The difference would be that the ships transporting the cotton and other materials from the New to the Old world would be flying the Union Jack instead of stars and stripes.
Lastly, I believe that if the United States did not exist, all those inventions, discoveries and developments you mentioned would have happened regardless. It would just be at different places and by different people. Or perhaps at the same place and same people, they would just say biscuit instead of cookie.
Paddy: I did not say the Industrial Revolution wouldn’t have happened had it not been for the US. All I did was highlight its importance as a producer of material wealth and its role as a harbor for greatness.
You, again, remind us of how comparatively insignificant (geopolitically) the States has been for most of its life. This ignores what was the point of these discussions: we are to pick a single event that “shake[s] the world and change[s] it forever”. What meets that definition if not the germinal moment of superpowerdom?
The US is enormously important today, has been for decades, and from its earliest days played a constructive role in world affairs – the Industrial Revolution included. Where, if you’ll allow me, is steam today?
I haven’t even explored how the signing of the Declaration meant the death notice of hundreds of nations – Native American nations whose names are immortalized in the names of everything from attack helicopters to golf courses. That was a monumental moment – the rejection of the European acceptance of Indian dominance in the Americas – and is not paid anywhere near the attention it deserves.
Pole: Yes the steam has gone away. But I think you cannot deny that the greatness of the United States was dependant on it. It was the industry powered by steam that allowed the States to grow into what it is today (as well as its relative isolation from other powers, and two world wars which eliminated its competition).
We probably could on. But I fell like we would just be repeating ourselves, and this thing is already too long.
I think it would be fair to say that the problem with arguing about those events is that they are so closely intertwined and co-dependent. The industrialisation of society and economy as well as the current capitalist system had their root in the steam engine. However they would have looked much different if the States were not there, or was not independent. Let us know what you think.