Will the Cat Above the Precipice Fall Down?

by Slavoj Zizek [Copyright free. Share as you like. Apparently the disinterest of more mainstream media has relegated this piece to the underworld of bloggery.]

When an authoritarian regime approaches its final crisis, its dissolution as a rule follows two steps. Before its actual collapse, a mysterious rupture takes place: all of a sudden people know that the game is over, they are simply no longer afraid. It is not only that the regime loses its legitimacy, its exercise of power itself is perceived as an impotent panic reaction. We all know the classic scene from cartoons: the cat reaches a precipice, but it goes on walking, ignoring the fact that there is no ground under its feet; it starts to fall only when it looks down and notices the abyss. When it loses its authority, the regime is like a cat above the precipice: in order to fall, it only has to be reminded to look down…

In Shah of Shahs, a classic account of the Khomeini revolution, Ryszard Kapuscinski located the precise moment of this rupture: at a Tehran crossroad, a single demonstrator refused to budge when a policeman shouted at him to move, and the embarrassed policeman simply withdrew; in a couple of hours, all Tehran knew about this incident, and although there were street fights going on for weeks, everyone somehow knew the game is over. Is something similar going on now?

There are many versions of the events in Tehran. Some see in the protests the culmination of the pro-Western “reform movement” along the lines of the “orange” revolutions in Ukraine, Georgia, etc. – a secular reaction to the Khomeini revolution. They support the protests as the first step towards a new liberal-democratic secular Iran freed of Muslim fundamentalism. They are counteracted by skeptics who think that Ahmadinejad really won: he is the voice of the majority, while the support of Mousavi comes from the middle classes and their gilded youth. In short: let’s drop the illusions and face the fact that, in Ahmadinejad, Iran has a president it deserves. Then there are those who dismiss Mousavi as a member of the cleric establishment with merely cosmetic differences from Ahmadinejad: Mousavi also wants to continue the atomic energy program, he is against recognizing Israel, plus he enjoyed the full support of Khomeini as a prime minister in the years of the war with Iraq.

Finally, the saddest of them all are the Leftist supporters of Ahmadinejad: what is really at stake for them is Iranian independence. Ahmadinejad won because he stood up for the country’s independence, exposed elite corruption and used oil wealth to boost the incomes of the poor majority – this is, so we are told, the true Ahmadinejad beneath the Western-media image of a holocaust-denying fanatic. According to this view, what is effectively going on now in Iran is a repetition of the 1953 overthrow of Mossadegh – a West-financed coup against the legitimate president. This view not only ignores facts: the high electoral participation – up from the usual 55% to 85% – can only be explained as a protest vote. It also displays its blindness for a genuine demonstration of popular will, patronizingly assuming that, for the backward Iranians, Ahmadinejad is good enough – they are not yet sufficiently mature to be ruled by a secular Left.

Opposed as they are, all these versions read the Iranian protests along the axis of Islamic hardliners versus pro-Western liberal reformists, which is why they find it so difficult to locate Mousavi: is he a Western-backed reformer who wants more personal freedom and market economy, or a member of the cleric establishment whose eventual victory would not affect in any serious way the nature of the regime? Such extreme oscillations demonstrate that they all miss the true nature of the protests.

The green color adopted by the Mousavi supporters, the cries of “Allah akbar!” that resonate from the roofs of Tehran in the evening darkness, clearly indicate that they see their activity as the repetition of the 1979 Khomeini revolution, as the return to its roots, the undoing of the revolution’s later corruption. This return to the roots is not only programmatic; it concerns even more the mode of activity of the crowds: the emphatic unity of the people, their all-encompassing solidarity, creative self-organization, improvising of the ways to articulate protest, the unique mixture of spontaneity and discipline, like the ominous march of thousands in complete silence. We are dealing with a genuine popular uprising of the deceived partisans of the Khomeini revolution.

There are a couple of crucial consequences to be drawn from this insight. First, Ahmadinejad is not the hero of the Islamist poor, but a genuine corrupted Islamo-Fascist populist, a kind of Iranian Berlusconi whose mixture of clownish posturing and ruthless power politics is causing unease even among the majority of ayatollahs. His demagogic distributing of crumbs to the poor should not deceive us: behind him are not only organs of police repression and a very Westernized PR apparatus, but also a strong new rich class, the result of the regime’s corruption (Iran’s Revolutionary Guard is not a working class militia, but a mega-corporation, the strongest center of wealth in the country).

Second, one should draw a clear difference between the two main candidates opposed to Ahmadinejad, Mehdi Karroubi and Mousavi. Karroubi effectively is a reformist, basically proposing the Iranian version of identity politics, promising favors to all particular groups. Mousavi is something entirely different: his name stands for the genuine resuscitation of the popular dream which sustained the Khomeini revolution. Even if this dream was a utopia, one should recognize in it the genuine utopia of the revolution itself. What this means is that the 1979 Khomeini revolution cannot be reduced to a hard line Islamist takeover – it was much more. Now is the time to remember the incredible effervescence of the first year after the revolution, with the breath-taking explosion of political and social creativity, organizational experiments and debates among students and ordinary people. The very fact that this explosion had to be stifled demonstrates that the Khomeini revolution was an authentic political event, a momentary opening that unleashed unheard-of forces of social transformation, a moment in which “everything seemed possible.” What followed was a gradual closing through the take-over of political control by the Islam establishment. To put it in Freudian terms, today’s protest movement is the “return of the repressed” of the Khomeini revolution.

And, last but not least, what this means is that there is a genuine liberating potential in Islam – to find a “good” Islam, one doesn’t have to go back to the 10th century, we have it right here, in front of our eyes.

The future is uncertain – in all probability, those in power will contain the popular explosion, and the cat will not fall into the precipice, but regain ground. However, it will no longer be the same regime, but just one corrupted authoritarian rule among others. Whatever the outcome, it is vitally important to keep in mind that we are witnessing a great emancipatory event which doesn’t fit the frame of the struggle between pro-Western liberals and anti-Western fundamentalists. If our cynical pragmatism will make us lose the capacity to recognize this emancipatory dimension, then we in the West are effectively entering a post-democratic era, getting ready for our own Ahmadinejads. Italians already know his name: Berlusconi. Others are waiting in line.

h/t A.U.F.S.

free market as religion :: economics as theology

“Our present economic system should also be understood as our religion, because it has come to fulfill a religious function for us. The discipline of economics is less a science than the theology of that religion, and its god, the Market, has become a vicious circle of ever-increasing production and consumption by pretending to offer a secular salvation. The collapse of communism makes it more apparent that the Market is becoming the first truly world religion, binding all corners of the globe into a worldview and set of values whose religious role we overlook only because we insist on seeing them as ‘secular.’” (15)

It is important to pay attention to the conceptual employment of both “secularity” and “religion.” Both concepts have shifted their content so that they demarcate autonomous spheres of ethical thinking. “Religion” is an abstract term that enables the speaker to lump incredibly diverse worldviews together in a single term, and generally, to contrast them to something else. “Religion” is the corral which contains a certain motley collection of worldviews in order to open space for the “secular.” The “secular” on the other hand is the “real” world in which thought is reduced to basic material and utilitarian terms, without the distraction of (private) values, beliefs, or metaphysical constraints. Past traditions (with their encumbering and superstitious restrictions) and any sense of the intrinsic importance of wild beauty or freedom are “external” considerations, things for other people to worry about in private—after all we live in the real world, the public sphere. 

“Although it may offend our vanity, it is somewhat ludicrous to think of conventional religious institutions as we know them today serving a significant role in solving the environmental crisis. Their more immediate problem is whether they, like the rain forests we anxiously monitor, will survive in any recognizable form the onslaught of this new religion.” (15) 

In exchange for a deeply grounded identity and a place in the ecological whole of the planet, we receive the consumer frills of a culture burning all the world’s candles at both ends. This “plenty” for which we endlessly labor is, supposedly, heaven. Or at least a third-rate knock off. Because perhaps, in the end, this is the heaven we’ve been imagining since Dante—divorced from the world that we know, from rocks, trees, lions and lambs. The (unreachable, but always “close”) heaven of the Market is that insipid climate-controlled cloud where nothing interesting ever happens because we’ve finally isolated ourselves from all of nature’s unpredictability (btw, there’s harp music for $2, if that’s your thing). 

“Market capitalism began as, and may still be understood as, a form of salvation religion: dissatisfied with the world as it is and seeking to inject a new promise into it, motivated (and justifying itself) by faith in the grace of profit and concerned to perpetuate that grace, with a missionary zeal to expand and reorder (rationalize) the economic system [where its ‘good news’ has not yet reached].” (19)

The myth of “secularity” is that a society can exist without some fundamentally orienting value distinctions (even a plurality), without some basic ordering of perception, and interaction with, the world. As it turns out, it cannot—the basic order appears implicitly and unacknowledged rather than consciously. When the free market is understood as the source of these fundamental value distinctions, even though it is supposedly “secular,” one recognizes its religious function in our lives. One corollary of this is that the “Separation of Church and State” is revealed to be a myth—without even entering into a debate about evolution or prayer in schools. Our “State” has a deeply vested interest in the national Establishment faith, the progress of the market. 

“Until the last few centuries there has been little genuine distinction between church and state, between sacred authority and secular power, and that cozy relationship continues today: far from maintaining an effective regulatory or even neutral position, the U.S. government has become the most powerful proponent of the religion of market capitalism as the way to live, and indeed it may have little choice insofar as it is now a pimp dependent upon skimming the cream of market profits.” (21) 

The most pressing theological tasks of the present include “publicly” exposing the (invisibly) idolatrous invasions of the market into the life and well-being of the planet; and narrating a tradition with a strong sense of identity rooted in a deep and complex history—a community with open boundaries and a promiscuous invitation.

 

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All quotes from:

Loy, David. “The Religion of the Market.” In Visions of a New Earth: Religious Perspectives on Population, Consumption, and Ecology, 15-28 Ed. Harold Coward and Daniel Maguire. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 2000.

William Cavanaugh :: differentiating soteriologies

“Modernity is unaccustomed to regarding political theory as mythological in character. The modern state is, however, founded on certain stories of nature and human nature, the origins of human conflict, and the remedies for such conflict in the enactment of the state itself. In this essay I will read these stories against the Christian stories of creation, fall, and redemption, and argue that both ultimately have the same goal: salvation of humankind from the divisions which plague us. The modern state is best understood, I will attempt to show, as a source of an alternative soteriology to that of the Church. Both soteriologies pursue peace and an end to division by the enactment of a social body; nevertheless I will argue that the body of the state is a simulacrum, a false copy, of the Body of Christ. On the true Body of Christ depends resistance to the state project. The Eucharist, which makes the Body of Christ, is therefore a key practice for a Christian anarchism.” (182)

“The dominance of state soteriology has made it perfectly reasonable to drop cluster bombs on ‘foreign’ villages, and perfectly unreasonable to dispute ‘religious’ matters in public.” … “As Raymond Williams and others have argued, war is for the liberal state a simulacrum of the social process, the primary mechanism for achieving social integration in a society with no shared ends. In a word, violence becomes the state’s religio [binding together], it’s habitual discipline for binding us to one another.” (194)

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From Cavanaugh, William. “Beyond Secular Parodies.” In Radical Orthodoxy: A New Theology, 182-200. Ed. John Milbank, Catherine Pickstock and Graham Ward. New York: Routledge, 1999.

Robert Mugabe as “prophet of God”? :: Police break up Eucharist in Zimbabwe

Police in Zimbabwe have violently disrupted an Anglican communion service, according to the Int. Herald Tribune. A schismatic bishop loyal to Mugabe, (so loyal in fact that he seems to have confused Mugabe with King David, calling him a “prophet of God”) has apparently brought the thuggish machinery of the Zimbabwean state down upon the heads of the faithful. If the outline of this story is correct, this pseudo-bishop’s actions ought to be recognized as a heretical and brought before ecclesial authorities. Here are a few excerpt of the story above: 

Over the past three Sundays, the police have interrogated Anglican priests and lay leaders, arrested and beaten parishioners and locked thousands of worshipers out of dozens of churches. “As a theologian who has read a lot about the persecution of the early Christians, I’m really feeling connected to that history,” said Bishop Sebastian Bakare, 66, who came out of retirement to replace Kunonga. “We are being persecuted.” 

Despite a High Court order requiring that Anglican churches be shared, church officials say that only people who attend services led by priests allied with Kunonga have been allowed to pray in peace.

There are as many dissimilarities as connections, but having spent the fall with Dietrich Bonhoeffer, I cannot help but see echoes of the Kirchenkampf–the struggle between the nationalist German Christian Movement and the Confessing Church. 

Pray for the church of Zimbabwe in the months ahead—especially the church facing violence for its recognition of the difference between the Kingdom of God and the kingdom of Robert Mugabe. The unrest in that nation will only increase as the quasi-legitimate run-off election approaches (now set for the end of June) and Mugabe does his best to ensure that he’ll die at the helm of a bleeding country (rather than find himself alone in the disrepute he has justly earned for himself). The church can organize Zimbabwe’s people, hold them in solidarity, and call the government to account for its brutal mistreatment of human beings. Pray for the church to remain faithful to her one Lord and Savior, whose body is broken for the sake of those people bearing the sins of others on their own bodies. 

[5.17.08] Update: Here is a story from Christianity Today with more background on Kunonga,  H/T: Conger

zimbabwe :: a word from the churches

Amidst the continuing electoral crisis in Zimbabwe, the church of that nation is calling out to make public the oppression and violence being perpetrated on the people. The crisis seems to consist of nothing more than the ruling coalition’s inability to recognize that they have lost the election—despite all their efforts to “steer” the outcome.

People are being abducted, tortured, humiliated by being asked to repeat slogans of the political party they are alleged not to support [that is, ZANU PF, the party which has held power for 28 years under Robert Mugabe], ordered to attend mass meetings where they are told they voted for the ‘wrong’ candidate and should never repeat it in the run-off election for President, and, in some cases, people are murdered.

I urge others to make the statement of Zimbabwe’s churches more widely known, and to join in prayer for the people of Zimbabwe—that they would not succumb to chicanery and intimidation, and that peace and justice would be restored to this ravaged land. Lord have mercy.

the promise of political salvation :: politics as religion

The other day, one of Barack Obama’s speeches lit-up all my “political messianism” warning lights.

In the unlikely story that is America, there has never been anything false about hope.

To be parsimonious, I’m pretty sure that I can refute that statement with two words: Manifest Destiny.

Whether or not you think there has ever been anything false about American hopes depends, more or less, on whether you are driving the covered wagon or lying in the ruts and reservations left behind. If you have not seen the speech/music video in which the line appears, you are in for a treat. Here is a political liturgy that tells us where power lies, and who we ought to become:

My main point, however, is to point to an excellent interview: Paul Kennedy speaking with John Gray on the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. show called Ideas. The program is available for download (scroll down to “Utopian Dreams”), and presents Gray’s argument that the “secular” politics of the last two centuries have co-opted religious devotion and eschatological expectation in grand narratives that order human life in the present. He is speaking as much about neo-conservative agendas for the triumph of democracy as the Marxist end-times revolution. Politics is at its best, he insists, when it aims toward the modest goal of helping folks get along. The program is well worth your listening.

words for the week :: my distractions

The New York Times had an op-ed piece by philosopher Slavoj Zizek on religion in China.

Perhaps we find China’s reincarnation laws so outrageous not because they are alien to our sensibility, but because they spill the secret of what we have done for so long: respectfully tolerating what we don’t take quite seriously, and trying to contain its political consequences through the law.

Dan is carrying out a terrifying thought experiment about Christian terrorism on behalf of the marginalized. He suggests that if violence is even permissable (much less obligatory)–a typical “just war” claim–then Christians would be obligated to take up arms against governments and multi-national corporations on a wide-spread basis. I, for one, am thankful that Dan is still committed to nonviolence.