Beyond Capital

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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.

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Historical Materialism is “Historicity without History” but it is not, therefore, Genealogy

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Historical materialism is historicity without history. And yet it is by no means genealogy. Of course, isnofar as it is historicity without history — which is the historicity of politics as permanent excess — historical materialism as a historiographical textuality is bound to have a genealogical form. But thought in terms of its practical actuality, the historicity of genealogy is merely a facticity or phenomenality of interiorised experience of difference. Precisely for this reason, genealogy is no more than the obverse of historicism. On the other hand, the historicity of historical materialism is now-time as the uninterrupted ongoingness of determinate excess of presence in its historical index — i.e. infinite difference and infinite deployment of infinite difference in its historical index.

The two citations below — from Adorno and Benjamin respectively — enable one to think this radical distinction between post-Hegelian phenomenology of Heidegger, and historical materialism, and thus, by extension, between genealogy (a phenomenologically reductive hermeneutic of difference) and historical materialism:

“…[Benjamin] seems to converge with the general intellectual current which protested against idealism and epistemology, demanding ‘the things themselves’ instead of their conceptual form, and which found an academically respectable expression in phenomenology and the ontological schools stemming from it. But the decisive differences between philosophers have always consisted in nuances; what is most bitterly irreconcilable is that which is similar but which thrives on different centres; and Benjamin’s relation to today’s accepted ideologies of the ‘concrete’ is no different. He saw through them as the mere mask of conceptual thinking at its wits end, just as he also rejected the existential-ontological concept of history as the mere distillate left after the substance of the historical dialectic had been boiled away.”
–Adorno, ‘A Portrait of Walter Benjamin’ (Prisms)

“What distinguishes images from the “essences” of phenomenology is their historical index. (Heidegger seeks in vain to rescue history for phenomenology abstractly through “historicity”.)….”
— Benjamin, Convolutes N, ‘On the Theory of Knowledge, Theory of Progress’ (The Arcades Project)

Why a Marx-Inspired Materialist Historiography cannot Afford to be Historicist and yet it often is

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A historically determinist (or hitoricist) historiography takes root when the line shifts from construing the discursive inscription of the immanent forces of history-as-movement as their limit, to making sense of such inscription as teleology. It’s this historical determinism as Marxism — which is arguably the result of reading Marx as if he was Hegel than retroactively read Hegel as Marx (i.e. read Hegel against his grain) — that has been the stageist bane of Marxist political interventions in the so-called non-European societies such as ours. The result: Marxist political discourse in the tropics has become a discourse tailor-made for the legitimation of the ideology of liberalism that can ‘survive’ and ‘succeed’ only by instituting its own materiality, which in this late capitalist conjuncture can, paradoxically, be nothing save neoliberalism.

All politico-ideological pleas of formal equality — all leftist struggles to win various violated or un-enforced juridical rights amounts precisely to that — can today succeed only by reinforcing the exchange-principle, and its basis in value-relations as the qualitative equalisation of qualitative differences through their quantitative differentiation. This would mean the reinforcement of value-relations through reinforcement of exchange-relations in their increasing precarity. And since this increasing precarity of value-relations would, in being reinforced, still be animated by the realisation or expression of value as qualitative equalisation in and through quantitative differentiation, such reinforcement of value-relations in its increasing precarity can only amount to increasing oppressiveness. The neurotic simultaneity of oppression and resistance — which is manifest in our current society and polity as the hegemony of competitive identity politics and lobby politics (both in their secular and so-called pre/non-secular forms) — is evidence of that.

In such circumstances, if one reads the Marx of Capital, in terms of his Afterword to the Second German Edition of Volume I, one will clearly see how Marx reverse-shifts the line, as it were, from teleology to limit, in his reading of history. That, arguably, is what his materialist operation on the Hegelian dialectic — the extraction of the rational kernel (of the dialectic) from its mystical shell (of a prioiri orientation) in his famous, and by now much-abused, words — amounts to. This is precisely the moment of Marx’s complete liberation from historicism. It’s this that gives us the Late Marx, who speaks affirmatively, for instance, of the ‘pre-capitalist’ Russian mir as the germ of a possible Russian road of historical development that could bypass capitalism, which for historical determinists was/is a necessary and un-bypassable milestone.

What does this non-teleological historiographical approach of Late Marx — which comes out of his explication of the logic of historical development in its bare and abstract form in Capital — amount to? It means the incompleteness of capital at particular spatio-temporal locations, once capital has come into being anywhere or everywhere else, is already an integral part of capital. Thus, struggles even at those locations that have the discursive appearance of pre-capitalism must be against capital. Which is to say, those struggles have to seek to abolish all teleology, including their own that will be imposed on them as their respective limits by their respective determinate locations. In terms of a philosophy of history, it means one approach each and every moment of history as being internally divided or schizzed between two temporalities — that of contingency and necessity (or, difference-as-differing-away and difference-as-identity). More precisely, it means every moment of history is an internal division between the time of form in and as its contingent instantiation (event) and the time of form as the concrete mediation of its structuring or being-placed. Walter Benjamin adumbrates precisely this as the historical materialist approach to historiography in his ‘Theses on Philosophy of History’, particularly theses V, VI and VII.

One should, however, have no qualms in admitting that even Late Marx’s historical vision is haunted by a tension between historicism and non-teleological history. Considering that Marx envisaged his critique of historicism (the Hegelian dialectic) — as any seriously radical and profoundly engaged critic ought to – from within such historicism, his battle against historicism is always conducted under the ineluctable shadow of the latter.

Marx’s constant endeavour in Capital is to show how capital — which is nothing but historicism in concrete action — is, in its, objectivity, a moving contradiction and thus constitutively neurotic. That is because Capital shows how commodity, which is the basic unit of capital (capital in its cell-form), is an objective demonstration of itself as the mobilisation of its own immanent critique or negativity — what with commodity being qualitative difference that is use-value in its sheer bodily form embodying or phenomenalising its own negation, which is value as the substance of qualitative equalisation. We can, in other words, say that capital for Marx is qualitative differences or use-values and their respectively singular concrete labours in their limit. But precisely in not being recognised in their limit, use-values are rendered neurotic commodities, wherein use-values in their qualitatively different (or singular) bodily forms embody, in and as the equivalent pole of an exchange-relation or value-form, the substance of qualitative equalisation (value) that is their negation as singularities.

As a result, the conception of limit – which belongs to a rigorously materialist historiography – would, in Marx, often find itself encoded in the historicist language, and, at times, even conception, of destiny and inevitability. The most infamous example on that count is the little that Marx wrote on the Latin America of his times. Be that as it may, we ought to read such ‘Eurocentric’ articulations of Marx, pace Jose Arico, as the exception to the rule of materialist historiography that is definitively posed, if not also instituted, by the approach that Marx’s Capital articulates.

In such circumstances, it would not — and should not — at all be an anathema for a Marx-inspired materialist historiography to deal with questions of culture, consciousness and mentalite as a history of phenomenology of difference. But where it would differ from both the established historigraphes of culture, consciousness and mentalite on one hand; and the equally canonised historically determinist historigraphy of the so-called Marxist historians from South Asia on the other, is in its demonstration of how such differences (as subjective experiences) are both themselves and already always their own limit, and thus subsumption into regimes of necessity. It’s in this sense that a radical Marxist historiographer could – in fact, necessarily should — draw as much from the historiographies of culture, consciousness and mentalite as from the various strains of determinist ‘Marxist’ historiography. For, only in drawing from both these kinds of historiography – by thinking difference and its subsumption together, but in their separateness — will he/she be able to complete the incomplete materialism that orients both those historiographical approaches. This rigorously comprehensive materialist historiography — which is exemplified by the historiographical practices of such rarely found historians as C.L.R. James (in Black Jacobins), Timothy Mason and Arno J. Mayer — is a synthesis of both the aforementioned historiographical approaches. And in being such a synthesis the materialist historiography in question breaks with the historiographical horizon constitutive of this duality.

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