Some of the Islamic militant groups responsible for the terror attacks in European cities since the Madrid bombing in 2004, including the recent van attack in Barcelona, see themselves as agents of political change. They identify Islam as a political theology.
This is not an uncommon occurrence. The last time I visited Israel, I observed that Judaism was being practised, among some communities at least, not as a set of private beliefs but as politics.
Likewise, there has been a recrudescence of white evangelical groups in the United States, militant and politicised in the extreme, since the Tea Party phenomenon.
This led me to wonder how it is possible that in societies that have inherited the legacies of the Enlightenment, principally the separation of church and state, religion is being used to shape or reshape the public space.
Israel constitutes something of an exception in this instance, because the religious law is a supreme authority in family matters, including marriage and divorce. Nevertheless, the question still stands. How is it that, in this age of consummate secularism, religion is returning as an agent of social, political and historical transformation in societies that are democratic and pluralist in spirit if not in the letter and body of the law?
Or are we wrong to think that religion ever disappeared from the public sphere?
The authority of religion, enforced by state power throughout the Middle Ages in Europe, started to be enforced by the “voice of conscience” at the dawn of the modern age. Religion was interiorised. It withdrew to the private sphere. This opened up the public sphere to the unfettered pursuit of science, industry and the market.
At any rate, that is the story that Europe enjoys telling about itself. It is a story of coming of age and of becoming mature, of becoming “enlightened”: the age of reason in which man frees himself from his self-incurred immaturity, in the famous words of Immanuel Kant.
But what if matters were otherwise? What if religion, far from having receded from the public sphere, survived in the market? What if capitalism is the continuation of the religious by other means?
That is not the usual explanation that is given of the religious “fundamentalisms” or “extremisms” whose rise we have been witnessing over the past decade. The blame is usually laid at the door of liberalism.
Liberalism, it is said, precludes collective political projects. In its emphasis on individual choice and in its attempt to secure individual rights through the marketplace and law, liberalism opposes the sense of human connectedness that we find in traditional practices and communitarian projects, including the building of a political community.
Moreover, the end of the Cold War and the fall of the Soviet Union have brought about the perception that liberal democracy has no Other to contend with, that it reigns unopposed. This led people such as political economist Francis Fukuyama to speak of the “end of history” with the becoming-global of the capitalist market.
Given that, since the fall of communism, it has not been possible to regard socialist projects without irony or suspicion of naivety, religion has arisen to fill the vacuum and re-establish a sense of human connectedness and community in liberal democracies.
This explanation seems to me correct on the surface. But I doubt that it is the sole cause of what is happening today.
All of the three Abrahamic religions — Judaism, Christianity and Islam — suppose that there is a distinction between material and immaterial things, between the natural and the supernatural. Examples of the supernatural include God, angels and the souls of mortals, which do not exist in nature or as physical things.
Now a commodity is a religious construct in just this sense, as Marx showed in the famous chapter of Capital, “The Fetishism of Commodities and the Secret Thereof”.
A “commodity” is the value of an item on the market — its worth. This is a supernatural thing because it is not anything physical that can be observed by means of the senses.
Suppose someone sees a table in the window of a shop priced at R2 000. Its price doesn’t pick out any of its physical properties. It tells us how much it’s worth, or what it can be exchanged for. But its worth is not a tangible relation. I cannot see it, smell it or touch it. All I see when I look at the table are features that have been designed to satisfy a human need or purpose, what Marx calls a “use value”.
The commodity form of goods is much like a phantom limb. The paradox of a phantom limb is that someone feels pain where she has no limb, where there is nothing. The paradox of a commodity is that it puts itself forward as a market value when there is nothing but a use value.
It is always by reference to the religious that Marx explains how an ideology functions. It is as if the religious contains the secret working of any ideology.
We believe that God exists independently of us, when in fact he is a fiction of the human brain. In exactly the same way, we believe that the value of the goods we sell or buy on the market exists independently of us, when in fact it is an objectification of the social relations between people.
Capitalism bears witness to the occult, to mysticism and to the supernatural, to a lack of maturity before the Enlightenment, as French philosopher Jacques Derrida once put it. It makes us believe in the existence of immaterial things. It is not without reason, therefore, that capitalism continues to make room for the appearance of religion as an agency of political change and transformation.
Can we do away with the religious? Is an age of consummate secularism, of enlightenment, possible? Or must the religious be rethought, beyond the opposition between the natural and the supernatural, in an experience of the death of God?
After all, if it is true that the end of the religious signifies the end or limit of capitalism, then what is perhaps necessary for enlightenment, beyond the establishment of a communist society, is to begin mourning the death of God.
That this is no easy task is something Friedrich Nietzsche reminds us of in a famous parable in The Gay Science.
The parable relates the story of a madman who lights a lantern in the morning and runs to the marketplace in search of God. He tells the people around him that God is dead and that they have killed him. The people in the market look at him in silence and astonishment. Seeing this, the madman throws his lantern on the ground. It breaks into pieces and he walks out. “I have come too early,” the madman says to himself. “My time is not yet. This tremendous event is still on its way, still wandering; it has not yet reached the ears of men.”
In the end, I doubt that we will understand much of the resurgence of the religious in the public domain if we continue to oppose reason and religion, as the Enlightenment of the 17th century taught us. Reason, or at any rate the rationality of the market, supports its presence.
Rafael Winkler is an associate professor in the department of philosophy at the University of Johannesburg. These are his own views.