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Affirming poverty, or, how to radically break with fascistic underconsumptionism

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“To deny poverty is to deny the absence of the Kingdom in the present system. It is to affirm the existing system as the Kingdom of this world. To affirm the poor, on the other hand, and to serve their eventual liberation, in the structures and in history, is to witness the presence of the Kingdom in the satisfying of the poor and to the absence of the Kingdom in the imperfection of society. The poor are the epiphany of the Kingdom or the infinite exteriority of God.
“It remains to distinguish between the inorganic multitude and the people as the emerging subject of history (Gen. 41:40), and the People of God as Church (Acts 15:14) called to a special role in history:
Come out of her (Babylon), my people, lest you take part in her sins (Revelation 18:4)”
–Enrique Dussel, ‘The Kingdom of God and the Poor’ (Beyond Philosophy: Ethics, History, Marxism, and Liberation Theology)

It must be stated quite explicitly here that the bleeding-heart, underconsumptionist politics of poverty alleviation — something that is preponderant among South Asian radicals, Marxists included — is precisely what we ought to, pace Dussel, characterise as denial of poverty. Such ‘Marxian’ underconsumptionism, and its concomitant ideology and politics of philanthropy and reformism respectively, is no more than the obverse of neoliberalism, which denies poverty in as many words. From a position that is rigorously Marxian, and is thus conceptually premised on overproduction/overaccumulation, poverty must be affirmed; neither denied, nor, for that matter, alleviated. Affirmation of poverty would be constitutive of politics proper — politics as the excess of all that which exists and which will come to exist — because such affirmation would amount to the affirmation of the condition of being unmeasured.

For, what else is poverty other than the condition of being unmeasured in the face of a system of quasi-objective measure (or value). This condition of being unmeasured, thanks to it being the condition of the absence of measure, and thus the condition of the limit of measure, makes measure possible. Hence, it is the limit of measure that is nevertheless constitutive of it. In that context, affirmation of poverty as politics would amount to affirmation of the limit of this system of quasi-objective measure or valorisation so that the latter is destroyed even as the former abolishes itself as the constitutive limit of that system of measure to emerge on its own terms as the immeasurable. In more clear strategic terms, such unsentimental affirmation of poverty would be, in Pasolini’s immortal words, unrelenting antagonism, without a shred of dialectical respite or reconciliation, towards the subsumptive value-relational system of quasi-objective measure in its concrete appearances.

Underconsumptionist ‘radicalism’, on the other hand, seeks to alleviate and thus deny poverty. The denial of poverty and suffering implicit in the apparent radicalism of struggling precisely for the alleviation of poverty and suffering stems from its underconsumptionist theoretical presupposition, wherein poverty and suffering are made sense of not as a crisis of the system of measure, which is precisely produced by this system in order to keep itself going, but as a curse of not being measured; or, not being fully subsumed by the system of measure. Such politics of alleviating poverty and suffering, needless to say, reinforces the system of quasi-objective measure (or valorisation) that produces poverty and suffering — which is the condition of being unmeasured — precisely in mobilising this limit of measure to found and (re)found itself as that system. It is not surprising that Pasolini, who was unflinching and unsentimental in affirming poverty as a revolutionary virtue, would see such underconsumptionist ‘radicalism’ as an unforgiveable handmaiden and ally of “neo-capitalism”.

Pasolini, in his characteristically counter-intuitive manner, repeatedly criticised such politics for undermining the revolutionary project. Here is an excerpt from his Lutheran Letters:
“The sin of the fathers is not only the violence of power, Fascism. It is also this: the dismissal from our consciousness by us anti-Fascists of the old Fascism, the fact that we comfortably freed ourselves from our deep intimacy with it (the fact that we considered the Fascists ‘our idiot brothers’; secondly and above all, the acceptance (all the more guilty because unconscious) of the degrading violence, of the real, immense genocides of the new Fascism.
“Why is there such complicity with the old Fascism and why such an acceptance of the new Fascism? Because there is — and this is the point — a guiding principle common to both, sincerely or insincerely: that is the idea that the greatest ill in the world is poverty and that therefore the culture of the poorer classes must be replaced by the culture of the ruling class.
“In other words, our guilt as fathers could be said to consist in this: that we believe that history is not and cannot be other than bourgeois history.”

Clearly, such politics, if we follow the train of Pasolini’s reasoning and analysis, effects the subjective embourgeoisement of the proletariat even as it not only leaves intact, but also actually reinforces, the proletarian condition in its sheer objectivity. This is arguably what Pasolini sought to argue when he insisted that “neo-capitalism” was a form of fascism more pernicious than political fascism that Europe had already experienced. And that, according to Pasolini, was because the latter was (is) characterised by, among other things, the continuance of “economic class struggle” even as the antagonistic class struggle between bourgeois and proletarian cultures had lapsed and disappeared. Pasolini’s “neo-capitalist” fascism — which he acutely demonstrated as being more insidious and more dangerous than the political fascism of yore — is nothing but our conjuncture of neoliberalism. This conjuncture is characterised by the state of exception having become generalised. So much so that struggles claiming to be anti-fascist are, precisely in asserting those claims, rendered fascistic in their own right. Thanks to ineluctable objective conditions, fascistic politics today is easily – and, as a matter of fact, invariably– operationalised precisely in the very moment of liberal-democratic juridicality, and in its political register.

It is in this context that the following contention of Dussel’s becomes extremely pertinent from the point of view of thinking an effective revolutionary strategy by way of articulating a thorough critique of underconsumptionism:
“It remains to distinguish between the inorganic multitude and the people as the emerging subject of history (Gen. 41:40), and the People of God as Church (Acts 15:14) called to a special role in history:

Come out of her (Babylon), my people, lest you take part in her sins (Revelation 18:4)”

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A rambling note on the need for a ‘religious’ left

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The question of religion cannot be adequately posed and articulated outside the frame of politics as the actuality of historically concrete forms of oppression and determinate struggles for and/or against the concrete operations of social power. This is precisely why any insistence on taking a hermeneutic and historicising approach to that question deserves to be attended to with some seriousness. However, such seriousness will be contingent, first and foremost, on how effectively one is able to work towards freeing such a hermeneutic approach from the grip of institutionalised liberal academics — a secure world it currently inhabits in utter innocuousness deprived of its subversive sting — and mobilised by the militancy of political struggles to be rendered their indispensable and integral strategic component.

And for that, revolutionary political militancy will need to be equally, and dialectically, suspicious of both academicism and its own ideology of pragmatism. An effective response to religion/s as ideologies of nationalist and other forms of identitarian bigotry and oppression — something that capitalist class power articulates in order to reinforce and reproduce itself — depends perhaps on how much one is able to move away from viewing religions as ahistorical and merely self-enclosed institutionalities, forms and representations of power. This is a presupposition that is shared by both (liberal) secularists, and their communitarian ‘opponents’ such as the infinitely banal Ashish Nandys of the world. The way forward lies, rather, through the rigours of working a historicising materialist hermeneutic that grasps religions as internally divided and divisible terrains of quotidian social power and political struggles.

It will, therefore, probably be productive to make a small detour here in order to briefly clarify and distinguish the various theoretical approaches at stake in the articulation of liberal-secular and communitarian political projects, as also the project that one is attempting to propose as a radical departure from both.

First, the project of liberal historicising that is undepinned and guided by the approach of Hegelian historicism. This approach seeks to reveal the historical gap between the performative and the epistemological in the conception and practice of religion/s. It then goes on to insist that precisely on account of such a gap — which is to say, due to the historical incapacity of religious systems to render their performativity epistemologically transparent to themselves – religion as a form of social practice ought to be designated traditional, pre-modern and backward, and abandoned. What such an intellectual paradigm proposes, instead, is the social form that is inhabited by the subject of such historicising inquiry, which is external to the social form of the religious that is its object, ought to displace the latter as the form of social practice and thus politics. This is the modality of liberal/secular politics at its rigorous best. The most distinguished and radical exemplars of such an approach would be Romila Thapar, and even D.D. Kosambi.

Second, the genealogical approach to historicising of systems and forms of social being and practice underpinned by the religious conception. This approach too registers the gap between the performative and the constantive (read the ideological). But then it goes on to suggest that as far as pragmatics go this gap does not really matter. Its argument being the performative dimension of the religious, regardless of whether or not such performativity is epistemologically transparent to itself, is self-sufficient in overcoming the gap between itself and its ideological knowledge. What it overlooks is the fact that ideology and knowledge are not purely cognitive and that they are a materiality that frames and articulates the performative, causing it to undermine itself in its effects. This is the sum and substance of the politico-theoretical articulation of ‘weak thinking’ that is integral to the philosophical approach of genealogy. As a consequence, what it yields by way of politics is an ethics of the self, whose effect is, at best, the political project of radical communitarianism if not communitarian populist reaction.

In both these approaches, theory and the problem of epistemology, in the way their deployment is envisaged, remain an externalised normativity. The politics of historical knowledge they produce is, as a consequence, one of anachronic interpolation.

That brings us to the historical-materialist approach to historicising – something that is often confused and conflated with liberal historicising of a Hegelian historicist vintage by the best among its self-declared practitioners. In this approach, historical moments are sought to be grasped in terms of concrete instantiations of rupture with History but also, simultaneously, how such concrete instants of rupture are once again subsumed by the dialectical machine that is history, rendering those moments of rupture their very opposite. Historical materialism — which seeks to inquire into History by thinking the dialectic and the anti-dialectical difference together, but in their separateness — also seeks to reveal the gap between the performative and the epistemological in the historical conception and practice of religion/s. In this it’s no different from liberal historicising rooted in historicism. But then it also attempts to make sense of and explain the reason behind this unbridgeable gap. Thence, its modes-of-production narrative. As a result, what it proposes, unlike the project of liberal historicising, is not that religious forms ought to be designated traditional, pre-modern and backward; and that they be considered reactionary as forms of social practice. Rather, by revealing the gap between the performative and the epistemological in the historical operation of religious forms — and demonstrating the limit-reason as to why that gap is not sought to be closed in and by that historical operation of the religious – it seeks to arm the religious subjects of various so-called pre-modern spatio-temporalities, in the here and now of the contemporary, with the knowledge of the performative dimension and temporality that religion/s are in their historical operation.

That way, historicising of the religious, if it is truly historical-materialist in approach, will work towards enabling religious subjects to grasp the religious forms they inhabit, and which interpellate them as those subjects, in terms of its historically performative dimension. This, needless to say, is meant to politically impel those religious subjects to deploy the religious register of their everyday life in terms of the knowledge of the performative dimension of the religious in its historical operation. Something that would render what is a practico-inert ideological register in the here and now of lived experience into a positive ideological register that instantiates and materialises the science of subversive performativity in that very moment of lived experience of the religious subject in its concrete everyday specificity. That would, therefore, not amount to, like in the intellectual project of liberal historicising and its concomitant politics of secularism, an out-of-hand rejection of the discursive resources constitutive of the religious as a register and form of transformative social practice and politics. On the contrary, it would imply the deployment of religious discursive resources to forge an organic idiom of transformative politics that in its deployment causes the religious register and form of social being to internally mutate through a sharpening of the material cleavages internal to that register as a homogenising ideological appearance.

Hence, the question that all those committed to a political project against various customary forms of religio-communal oppression need to ask is how have discursive resources of religion/s become constitutive ideologies of bigoted oppression, class domination, and hegemony of capitalist modernity. Concomitantly, they also need to ask, how, and in what concrete circumstances, can religious discursive/ideological resources — and what kind of resources — be mobilised as idioms of political struggles for emancipation from power. For, in such struggles what is at stake is not secularism but a militantly materialist and thus historically grounded atheism. This is the politico-theoretical lesson that comes to us from Marx’s critique of liberal-secular atheism, particularly that of Feurbach and such Young Hegelians as Bruno Bauer. Or, Engels’ analysis of different Christianities — of Martin Luther, Jan Hus and Thomas Muenzer — in terms of their different material bases and operation in his, The Peasant War in Germany.

In the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, the liberation theology movements of Latin America, and the theologically-inflected but politically militant theoretical interventions of Walter Benjamin, Ernst Bloch (his ‘Atheism in Christianity’ is a telling example), Jacob Taubes, Swami Sahajananda Saraswati (‘Maharudra ka Maha Tandav’, ‘Gita Hriday’), Rahul Sankrityayan (remember his polemic on Ram rajya with Karpatri Maharaj), Maulana Bhasani, Alain Badiou, Antonio Negri, Roland Boer, Enrique Dussel and Aziz Al-Azmeh — to just name a few — point precisely in such a strategic direction.

Prayer as Revolution, Revolution as Prayer

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Prayer, thought in its extreme, is dystopian irony. That is because it’s a radically pessimistic act, and thus act as such in its pure immanence. The act of praying comes into being, and perseveres in itself as that act, precisely by disavowing all that is (and, in advance, all that can and will be ‘that is’). For, when one prays, is it not for that which is not? And does that, therefore, not render prayer in its impersonal genericness as the pursuit of the real that is not mortal reality? It is thus an act that can only proceed through disavowal of all mortal hope, and is yet an act. Prayer, therefore, is an earthly, mortal act that proceeds both despite and because of the lack of mortal hope.

That prayer is an act constitutive of the negation of all mortal hope, even as it proceeds affirmatively precisely through such hope, renders it a dystopia that is ironical in its dystopianism. Prayer, therefore, is an act that is in its affirmation ceaseless precisely because its motor is that of absolute, unmitigated pessimism. Or, conversely, prayer is a mortal act that is impelled by a hope that is in excess of all hope one can be mortally conscious of. It’s driven in its affirmation, to borrow Kafka’s messianic language, by the fact of there being infinite hope that is not for us. It is, to borrow from Benjamin’s essay on Kafka, an act that proceeds in and through the dialectic of “rumour and folly”. In other words, it’s the dialectic of faith and doubt — or faith as doubt .

Thus prayer is not merely faith, it’s reason too. For, reason pushed to its radical extreme is nothing but the excess of all mortal (and moral-normative) determinations, the hope they induce, and their power. Prayer as this radically pessimistic — this ironically dystopian — act is the mode of singularisation of faith and reason (faith as the coming-into-being of reason a la Thomas Muenzer). Prayer then is the act that doubts the consciousness of hope of its concrete mortal agents through which it must nevertheless necessarily proceed.

And what of redemption? Is that not the goal of prayer? Without doubt! But that goal of prayer is prayer itself: prayer as its own goal. Hence, redemption is the world as the act of prayer persevering in itself. More precisely, redemption is the world in and as the mode taking-place and thus in radical antagonism to world in and as the mode having-taken-place. For, insofar as the world in mode taking-place is interruption of the world in mode having-taken-place, it’s redemption. This is what a Spinozist utra-rationalist faith — seemingly an aporia — would arguably amount to. One that is far more rigorous in its post-phenomenological radicalism than the experiential and phenomenological radicalism of Nietzsche’s anti-rationalist “will to power”.

In such circumstances, one can speak legitimately of prayer as redemption — i.e. if prayer is not to remain mere illumination by existing only in the interiority of thought and experience, but appear as the in-existence/in-existing it thus is vis-a-vis the world in its existence/existing — only if one speaks the revolution. In other words, while prayer (as illumination) is the practice of thinking, and thus experiencing, the redemption to come, redemption, or revolution, is the prayer as its own immanent thought (or, experience) in action. So, revolution is fundamentally an affirmation, not a negation. Such affirmation is, however, not simply an assertion and celebration. It is, instead, the negativity or void in and as the time of its own determinate presentation or taking-place. and thus an excess of what exists. This is in radical contrast to negativity simply being the negation of what is. Revolution is, therefore, the actuality — or shall we say, profanation — of this ironically dystopian modality of prayer in its radical, and thus messianic and exilic, form. Therefore, revolution as its own affirmation can only be more revolution: Marx’s “revolution in permanence”.

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